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Photo illustration of a drop in a metallic poolNew UK Center Making a Splash In Aluminum R&D

In his office at UK's Coldstream Research Campus, Subodh Das leans back in his swivel chair, laces his fingers behind his neck, and says, "I love this job—I just love it."

Das's job is selling aluminum or, more precisely, selling the aluminum industry on the idea of partnering with the university to sponsor new research and development. The end-goals of this coalition are more efficient manufacturing processes, and better and less costly products for all of us. In talking about this partnership, Das evinces an almost evangelistic fervor.

"Well, yes, I guess you could say I am a man on a mission," says Das, who directs the new Center for Aluminum Technology (CAT) at the University of Kentucky's College of Engineering. "But how can you not love a venture like this where everybody wins—industry, researchers, the university, and the general public?"

In part, he says, university researchers are filling a void that has resulted from what Das calls a "megatrend" in the United States—the disappearance of company-sponsored R&D facilities in the aluminum industry. He explains that most research labs have folded because the companies can no longer afford them. Such research enterprises are too expensive, it's too risky to gamble on results that may or may not pay off, and the increasing legal complexities of licensing intellectual property—discoveries made in the lab—are daunting.

Photo of Subodh Das"How can you not love a venture like this where everybody wins—industry, researchers, the university, and the general public?"—Subodh Das

Das says universities have a unique opportunity to fill this vacuum. "It's an ideal combination. Universities have the brainpower to work on problems that industry identifies, and industry has the means of production ready to roll. It's all about sharing." He emphasizes that in this operation he's not much interested in research for its own sake. "You have to think of potential users. It's not just the creation of new knowledge that's important. How can that knowledge—that new process or product—be implemented to help people solve a problem?"

In addition to his role as director of CAT, Das also serves as president and chief operating officer of Secat, a for-profit corporation that finds researchers for companies. In his role as matchmaker, Das talks with numerous companies to identify common research needs. Secat then works with national funding agencies such as the Department of Energy to gain support for these projects. In this way, Secat acts as a research brokerage. Das explains: "Having identified the aluminum industry as one of nine sectors critical to the national economy, the DOE awards research funds for projects that will help the aluminum industry find ways to cut costs and stay competitive in a global economy."

Why UK?

It may come as a surprise to many that the Commonwealth of Kentucky is big on aluminum, very big. "If Kentucky were a country," Das exclaims, "it would have the world's greatest concentration of aluminum facilities." The state has 80 aluminum plants involved in production and fabrication, and according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, the Kentucky aluminum industry employs nearly 12,000 workers. Paul Coomes, a professor of economics at the University of Louisville, has calculated a total state payroll of $543 million and has figured the average industry salary at $48,578 a year.

"Kentucky and three contiguous states—Indiana, West Virginia and Tennessee—now account for half of the aluminum made in this country," Das says, "and if you want to feel the weight of the industry in our state alone, think about this: Every year over two billion pounds of aluminum is manufactured and fabricated in Kentucky."

Another reason to locate the center in Kentucky, and specifically in Lexington, is the long and strong history of aluminum research at UK.

"We've been doing research in aluminum here in the College of Engineering since 1959—all aspects of physical and mechanical metallurgy," says Jim Morris, a UK professor of materials engineering. Significant financial support in the 1970s ("$250,000 a year for five years was a lot of money back then") from Continental Can Company of Connecticut enabled the college to establish the Light Metals Research Laboratories (which has now merged with CAT). Morris says that this funding gave researchers the opportunity to study the materials and processes involved in traditional direct chill casting versus the more modern strip-cast (also called continuous-cast) process.

Photo of Jim Morris, Jiantao Liu and Xiang Ming ChengJim Morris, seen here with doctoral student Jiantao Liu (seated) and postdoc Xiang Ming Cheng, has been involved in aluminum research at UK since 1959.

Direct chill casting, Morris explains, begins with huge ingots, weighing from 30,000 to 50,000 pounds. The ingot is chilled in a water-spraying process. Then it undergoes a thermomechanical process that involves a series of time-consuming steps, including "homogenizing" it in a furnace at around 1100 degrees Fahrenheit and then treating the ingot in a three-story-high hot-rolling breakdown mill. After a few more treatments, the ingot is finally broken into a plate about an inch thick.

"The strip-cast process is much simpler and a whole lot less cumbersome than that," Morris says. "A strip-casting machine casts materials slightly less than one inch thick and casts continuously for several days. After it is cast as a plate five feet wide, it is thermomechanically processed. This plate then goes immediately into the hot rolling mill, bypassing a lot of the steps involved in direct chill casting." The properties and characteristics of aluminum cast in this way are totally different from those that result from the traditional process, Morris adds.

"We've done more aluminum strip-cast research—by far—than any other university in the country," Morris says, "and probably more than all other universities put together."

If the strip-cast process is so much less cumbersome, why is the older process still being used by roughly 80 percent of aluminum-processing companies?

"Two words," Das says: "sunk capital." The aluminum industry, he says, has invested billions of dollars in equipment, and though the last direct chill casting plant was built in 1983, it wouldn't make economic sense for these companies to scrap all this equipment and start with a clean slate. Most new operations Das can think of, however, are utilizing the continuous-cast method, refined and improved over the years in part by Morris and a series of postdocs and graduate students at UK.

The Funding Challenge

Das came to UK in 1999, after retiring as vice president for research at ARCO Aluminum in Louisville. It was then that he "began to get a fresh feel" for aluminum research.

"In several discussions with Jim Morris and Tom Lester [dean of the UK College of Engineering], it became clear to all of us that aluminum research was meager, nothing was happening out there. When Tom started talking about some important new funding for UK, from the Research Challenge Trust Fund (RCTF), we started to get excited. The College of Engineering was soon to benefit from this initiative, and we began to talk about new directions in aluminum research and how UK could play an important role."

"Jim and I spent a fair amount of time in the early '90s visiting aluminum companies in the state, and it became clearer and clearer how much they depended on our materials sciences program for expertise and also a supply of young Ph.D.s from UK," says Lester. "In part to solidify our role with the aluminum industry in the state, we merged the departments of materials sciences and engineering with chemical engineering in 1994," he says.

As far as the UK-aluminum industry tie, though, Lester gives Morris the lion's share of the credit. "Jim has been proselytizing about the importance of aluminum to the university and to the state for over 40 years. Basically, he's been the Lone Ranger of Aluminum around here for a long time." Morris says his best guess is that over the years around 60 students have graduated from this program with an emphasis on aluminum research.

With additional encouragement from Mark Durst, president of ARCO in Louisville and his former boss, Das and Lester arranged a meeting with top UK administrators and the Kentucky governor. The meeting went well—the concept of an aluminum technology center at UK was greeted warmly. In the coming weeks, UK was able to commit $1.2 million for the land and building needed; the state, on top of the $2 million from the RCTF, added nearly $2 million for laboratory equipment. Now it was time for Das to see what industry support he could drum up.

"I started knocking on a lot of doors and spending hours on the phone," Das recalls. "If this was going to fly, we needed to get industry to literally buy into it." A few months later, his success surprising even Das a bit, 16 aluminum companies around Kentucky had committed a total of nearly $2 million, matching Patton's support for lab equipment, to help the center get moving.

"The fun really started then," Das says. "In March 1999 we sponsored a workshop attended by representatives of The Aluminum Association, whose member companies operate almost 200 U.S plants. After identifying specific research areas of interest to industry members, we met with some people at DOE. Secat then submitted research proposals to the agency."

To date, these efforts have been rewarded by a cost-sharing, total funding package over three years of $15 million—$7.5 million from DOE and the other $7.5 from the aluminum industry. Das is quick to point out that most of this funding, around $13 million, is being used to support researchers at national laboratories throughout the United States as well as UK researchers.

"Our charter at Secat is to serve industry by linking them up with the best researchers in labs around the country that have the best resources for their particular work," he says, adding that it would be wasteful for the aluminum industry to duplicate spending on expensive equipment in other U.S. labs.

The CAT: Off and Running

Secat is currently funding four projects at UK, totaling $2 million, all initiated by concerns and problems voiced by the aluminum industry. In addition to Morris's research into the strip-cast process, Kozo Saito in mechanical engineering is hard at work on two projects and David Atwood in chemistry is heading up a fourth project.

One problem identified by a number of aluminum companies is the incidence of stress cracks in ingots produced in direct chill casting. Cracks form during the cooling process, and to eliminate these cracks the ingot has to be "scalped," a process that results in aluminum scrap waste. It is estimated that scrap reduction could mean an annual energy savings in the United States of over six trillion BTUs and a cost savings of over $25 million by 2020. To respond to this challenge, Das called in a local expert.

UK's Saito, termed the "resident fire man" by a few of his colleagues in mechanical engineering, was happy to go to work on the aluminum casting process problem. "For the past 17 years, I've been doing research on heat transfer, specifically on the spread of fire. Using infrared techniques, you can do what we call 'temperature mapping,' which also applies to the forming and cooling of ingots."

To have a close-up look at the casting process, Saito went to several aluminum companies in the state to observe and to take some notes. "Once the hot liquid is poured into a container, it has to be cooled by water spray," Saito says. "And when the spray is uneven or perhaps too forceful, cracks can result. My task is to try to figure out what kind of cooling system would eliminate the cracks."

Once Saito gets the data he needs from the company in Spokane, Washington, that makes the ingot, he plans to use computer modeling to determine possible solutions. "It might turn out that more of a fine mist is needed, or maybe we could adapt some process of film cooling." In this process, Saito explains, cool air is discharged through small holes to provide a thin, cool insulating layer along a hot surface.

Photo of David Atwood and Kozo SaitoDavid Atwood (left) and Kozo Saito are part of the UK team working on fundamental aluminum research that also has potential industrial applications.

Saito is also involved in a second project, working on the problem of how to increase furnace combustion efficiency and, again, his work with fire may provide an answer.

"We already have some ideas about this," he says. "One possibility would be to make what we call a fire tornado, which would result in a more compressed and tighter flame." To achieve this, Saito would remodel the furnace by adding some side vents through which air would be guided to twist the flame into a rotary motion. "This mixing of air and fuel can achieve much better combustion," Saito says. "We've shown this on a smaller scale, and we believe it can work on a larger scale, too."

Das estimates that full-scale implementation of this second project by 2015 will lead to yearly energy savings of 13 trillion BTU and an energy cost savings of $57 million a year for the U.S. aluminum industry.

Nullifying Oxide

Another major problem identified by aluminum company executives involves severe oxidation of aluminum during heating and melting phases. Even though aluminum automatically obtains an oxide coating, this treatment does not keep it from being converted to dross as the temperature reaches 1000 F in the presence of oxygen.

"We're trying to prevent this enormous loss of aluminum due to runaway oxidation," says David Atwood, an associate professor of chemistry who came to UK three years ago. He explains that one unique characteristic of aluminum is its strong tendency to form bonds with oxygen.

"This is advantageous at low temperatures where the oxide forms a protective coating. However, at higher temperatures the oxide growth continues past the surface of the metal and will consume almost half of the molten aluminum present." This oxidation problem was handed to Atwood and his graduate students by Subodh, representing the needs of the industry. And Atwood along with his research group, which he characterizes as "a very talented team of graduate and undergraduate students doing fundamental aluminum research," have recently made a key discovery in this work—something, he says, that hasn't been identified before.

"We've found that there's a process occurring that facilitates oxidation of aluminum," Atwood explains. "It isn't the oxidation process itself, but a precursor, a catalyst in a sense, that is responsible for the oxide loss."

Although he is bound by a confidentiality agreement with the company sponsoring this work, he can say he believes he and his students are close to being able to prevent this catalytic reaction from taking place. He adds that this discovery, like many scientific advances, happened because of a lucky accident.

"When a group of my guys doing environmental chemistry were working on ways to prevent acid drainage from coal mines for the gas and mining industries, we discussed ways of preventing pyrite dissolution (the main cause of acid drainage). When we finally hit on a good solution, it dawned on me that this process and the process of aluminum oxidation were actually the same chemical phenomenon. It was like the sky suddenly opened up!" He adds that he and his team still have a lot of work to do to fully characterize the chemical process.

Photo illustration of aluminum soda cans"Universities have the brainpower to work on problems that industry identifies, and industry has the means of production ready to roll. It's all about sharing."—Subodh Das

"In the short run, however, we're optimistic that within a year or two, at most, Secat will be able to offer practical suggestions for preventing aluminum melt loss," says Atwood.

"In the U.S. aluminum industry, over 100 trillion BTUs are lost as a result of oxidative melt," Das explains. "Our goal in this project is to achieve a 50 percent reduction in this melt loss. Full-scale implementation of the results of Atwood's research could lead to a savings of more than 50 trillion BTU by the year 2020, an energy savings equivalent to running the city of Lexington for one year for free."

"Here's the key thing about all of this: insightful people like Subodh and the others working on this project recognize the importance of a team effort like we have here," Atwood says. "Good ideas can come from anywhere. And scientific curiosity clearly does not exclude industrial applications."

Fulfulling the Land-Grant Promise

Das seems totally ready for the devil's-advocate questions: Is it really such a good thing that the university is getting so cozy with industry? Doesn't such work detract from the concept of professors pursuing lofty ideals and scholarly goals?

"Not at all, not at all," Das counters. "Actually, by doing this work we are satisfying all three missions of being a land-grant university. We're doing original research, we're improving the lives of people throughout the state, and we're educating and graduating students." He adds that many of these students will work in various capacities in the aluminum industry, which means they'll likely be staying in the state.

"With a consortium like this that furthers the goals of all three aspects of the university's mission, we're unique. We're probably the first in the country to do this." Das believes, too, that an additional benefit of CAT may well be its function as a role model. "If this model can work for aluminum, it can work for other industries," he says.

Jeff Worley