Path to success through collaboration of university, research institutions and industry

The development of novel environmentally friendly aluminium alloys reinforced with quasicrystals has come a long way and is much more than just a recent inspiration. Intensive research started in 2007 and is still one of the main research topics of the professors, teaching assistants and technical staff at the Chair of Metallography, Faculty of Natural science and Engineering, University of Ljubljana. The first article (2007) was published in collaboration with colleagues from the Mechanical Engineering Department of the University of Maribor under the title “Phases in a quasicrystalline alloy Al64.4Cu23.5Fe13.1”.

The following research on quasicrystalline alloys was also supported by the Slovenian Research Agency (ARRS). Optimization of chemical composition and mechanical testing of novel Al alloys reinforced with quasicrystals were carried out within bilateral projects and postgraduate research funding (Young Researchers). Within the bilateral projects between Slovenia and the United States of America, SLO-ZDA 12/13-026, in 2012/2013 and twice between Slovenia and Montenegro, SLO-CG 12/13-014 and BI-ME 14/15-012, in 2012/2013 and 2014/2015, various aluminium alloys were produced in a chamber furnace (air) and cast into a copper mould with a casting cavity of 5 and 15 mm diameter. More than 15 theses, including master and diploma theses, and 3 doctoral theses, were successfully defended during this period.

We also applied to the European Union (EU) for funding in 2015, 2016 and 2020. Unfortunately, we were not successful, although our consortium consists of strong international partners from research institutions: Fraunhofer Institute (FRI), Institute Jean Lamour (IJL), Austrian Foundry Research Institute (AFRI), Jožef Stefan Institute (JSI), Slovenian National Building and Civil Engineering Institute (ZAG), Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced Materials (IMRAM), National Institute of Materials Science (NIMS), TU Clausthal, Institute of Metallurgy (IM); universities: Warsaw University of Technology (WUT), University of Zagreb (UZ), Krakow University of Technology (CUT), and industry: Constellium France (CF), Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum (SEZ), Talum d.d. (TAL) and IMPOL (IMP).

After two unsuccessful applications to HORIZON (2015 and 2016) and strong interest from industry, we sought other funding opportunities that are more application-oriented. In 2020 and 2021, we participate in the EIT RawMaterials Jumpstarter, EIT RawMaterials ADRIA HUB and EIT RawMaterials Accelerator programmes. During this process we have started to acquire more entrepreneurial skills. Through various channels available at the University of Ljubljana (Incubator (LUI) and the Office of Technology Transfer), we joined forces with a smaller and more adaptable industrial partner, ISKRA ISD – Casting. With the common goal of producing a functional prototype from an aluminium alloy reinforced with quasicrystalline phase, we performed three industrial high-pressure die casting (HPDC) processes using the QC alloy. The prototype parts produced from a new alloy were evaluated and analysed. For these castings, the mechanical properties were sufficiently higher than those of the alloy DIN 226 Al to confirm the initial hypothesis of a new environmentally friendly aluminium alloy. Some improvements were noted due to the higher liquidus temperature and the formation of the QC phase, which is critical to improving the mechanical and physical properties.

As you might imagine, trial castings are expensive, so it made sense to seek adequate funding to bring a novel product to market. Strong support came from the Slovenian National Institute for Structural and Civil Engineering (ZAG), where an application for funds from the EIT RawMaterials funding programme (KAVA 9) was initiated. With a small and manageable number of project partners from different fields, we were approved for funding. We all strongly believe that through close cooperation between universities, research institutions and industry, more environmentally friendly alloys can be brought to market.