The New Steel Age
As the rapidly changing energy landscape calls out for a new generation of highly specialized steels, manufacturers worldwide look to Mines' steel center for leadership.

As far back as 2,100 B.C., resourceful metallurgists in Western Asia began melting iron and infusing it with carbon to make steel. Four-thousand years later, one might assume we know all there is to know about the metal that makes up 60 percent of our cars, 75 percent of our appliances, three-quarters of our buildings, and the bulk of our bridges and ships.

Not so, says David Matlock, director of the Advanced Steel Processing and Products Research Center (ASPPRC) and a professor of metallurgical and materials engineering since 1972. In an age when consumers and governments are clamoring for more fuel-efficient automobiles, and cleaner, more efficient energy generation, a renaissance of steel innovation is upon us.

“People assume it is an old, mundane material, but new things are happening all the time,” says Matlock. “If you look at automobiles, wind towers, pipelines, nuclear reactors, or oil rigs—the  major components in all of those are steel-based, so you had better be using that steel as efficiently as possible.” Twenty-five years after it was founded, ASPPRC remains a go-to resource for companies wanting to do just that.

Aside from formulating new steel pro•cessing techniques and testing them in a 10,000-square-foot mechanical testing lab, the collaborative university-industry research center also serves as an intellectual incubator, producing graduates with more hands-on knowledge about steel than any engineering school in the country. It remains one of the only university centers to focus primarily on steel research, and as the need for innovation in the energy field escalates, it is poised to play a critical role.

“There is a lot of promise in steel. It is a very complicated material, so there is significant opportunity for future development,” says Kip Findley, who received a bachelor’s degree from Mines in metallurgical and materials engineering in 2001 and returned in 2008 to teach at the center. He explains that the specialized needs of the changing energy landscape is driving much of the cen•ter’s work on advanced steel alloys.

ASPPRC was founded in 1984 by Matlock (pictured) and his colleague, George Krauss, a university professor emeritus who remains involved with the center. It was a time when interest in steel was fading among public agencies. “The government was retracting funding for steel in preference for other, more ‘exotic’ materials,” recalls Matlock. The center emerged from the vacuum left behind; small steel companies needed to outsource their research needs; larger ones needed highly trained professionals to man their research operations.

While initially the center relied on support from a five-year National Science Foundation grant and from its six charter members, more steel companies soon came knocking and by 1989 the center was self-sufficient.

ASPPRC currently has 25 sponsors from around the globe, contributing about three-quarters of its $2 million annual budget (various other grants make up the rest). Sponsors include steelmakers, such as SSAB, U.S. Steel, Nucor, Timken, AK Steel, Severstal, POSCO and Gerdau Macsteel, as well as the heavy equipment, pipeline and car companies that use their products, such as Caterpillar Inc., Deere, GM, Hyundai and Toyota.

Like other such university research centers, ASPPRC is a collaboration among competitors. While some sponsors may compete head-to-head in the marketplace, they are all interested in helping the steel center maximize productivity. Matlock observes that sometimes the collaborative spirit the center cultivates can spill over into new business and technical partnerships.

“There is nobody in the nation that does it this well,” says Paul DiMitry, vice president of business development for longtime sponsor Gerdau-Macsteel. “Both my customers and competitors are members [of the center], so we can drill pretty deep and get a sense of what the challenges are for the industry as a whole.”

The Auto Challenge: Stronger, Safer, 35 mpg
Top of mind among auto manufacturers and the steel companies who supply them is the question: How do we improve mileage, while still making a safe, strong car with all the bells and whistles consumers expect?

The pressure is on, as President Obama is floating a proposed mandate that would require cars to meet a 35.5 miles-per-gallon industry average by 2016. (Currently, the average hovers around 20.8 mpg.) Meanwhile, new safety regulations (which often require steel-reinforced body parts) and an affinity for more automation (seats, doors, and windows powered by steel motors) has driven the weight of the average car up in recent years—the average topped 4,117 pounds in 2008, up from 3,744 ten years earlier.

The more a vehicle weighs, the more fuel it requires, so car manufacturers are looking to the steel industry to develop stronger steels that achieve the same results at approximately the same cost, while using less material—a tall order.

Enter the steel center.

Since 2003, John Speer, a professor of metallurgical and materials engineering, has been working with students to formulate a process called "quenching and partitioning" (Q&P) in which steel is heated and cooled in such as a way as to create a novel microstructure that is at once stronger and more formable than previous steels. “If you are trying to improve the strength of steel, one of the challenges is to maintain as much formability as possible, because it doesn’t help if you have strong steel that you can’t form into shapes,” explains Speer. One sponsor from the Chinese steel industry, Baosteel, is currently evaluating the process in its own facilities, eyeing Q&P steels as next-generation lightweight materials for use in automobiles.

Lee Rothleutner '09 compresses 1100C-steel to study phase transformations seen during industrial forging operations.

Meanwhile, Findley, in cooperation with colleague Stephen Liu and a team of graduate students, is exploring other advanced high-strength sheet steels and looking at ways to improve welding processes to ensure that these stronger steels remain reliably joined to adjacent parts over time. “As the alloy contents in these sheet steels are increased to make them stronger, they become less weldable,” says Findley. “The welds … are often more brittle than welds in prior generation steels.”

Obviously brittle welds don’t cut it in cars.

Wind, Nuclear Power, Oil and Gas
The push to lower carbon emissions is adding to the center’s work in other ways as well.

The boom in wind energy is creating opportunities for center faculty to offer their expertise. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, if wind power were to reach 6 percent of the U.S. energy supply, the additional infrastructure would require at least 13 million tons of steel, specially formulated for diverse needs such as gear boxes and fatigue-resistant high-strength towers.

Rick Bodnar, director of research and development for the steelmaker, SSAB North America, which is a longtime sponsor of the ASPPRC, has exposure to the wind industry: “Lots of our plates go into wind towers, so we are investigating higher-strength steel to make the plate lighter so it is easier to transport.”

With interest in nuclear energy on the upswing, Bodnar is also anticipating the needs of the nuclear energy industry. He explains that new steel formulations capable of withstanding the intense heat created inside nuclear power plant reactors need to be developed. “Things are changing and companies need to be prepared,” he says.

On the fossil fuel side of the energy industry, the kinds of steel needed for oil and gas platforms and pipelines are changing too. Oil companies looking for untapped offshore oil reserves beyond the continental shelf need equipment capable of operating at depths of 10,000 feet. The engineering challenges of boring through thousands of feet of bedrock from a platform situated two miles overhead are immense. Specialized steel can help, but it must be able to tolerate the constant fatigue of ocean waves and, despite salty sea air, require zero maintenance. “Anything you put in the ocean, if it requires maintenance, is very expensive,” says Matlock.

On dry land, a boom in domestic natural gas production requires an expanded distribution system in the form of more pipelines. One major initiative is the Rockies Express Pipeline: a proposed 1,679-mile, wide-diameter gas throughway that will stretch from Colorado to Ohio, connecting Rocky Mountain suppliers with major markets to the east. The project would require about 1.2 million tons of specialized plate steels able to withstand the elements and internal pressure for at least 25 years—another engaging challenge on the horizon for ASPPRC.

Along with supporting research, ASPPRC sponsors are overcoming these and other challenges by hiring Mines graduates; of the more than 170 graduate students to come through ASPPRC, a high percentage have ended up employed by sponsors and their related companies. And as Matlock points out, most of these students have been in the enviable position of having had several years to get to know and evaluate those companies before making employment decisions.

Shared among the steel center’s diaspora, its faculty, students and sponsors, is an awareness of the importance of their work. Steel has been so ubiquitous for so long that it has been taken for granted. However, as society wakes up to the urgency and scope of our energy challenges, the role of steel is becoming clear, and ASPPRC faculty and students are excited about the contribution they can make. “There is a rich history in steel development that goes back many years, but there is still so much we don’t know,” says Speer. “It is always a good time to be studying steel.”