Managing stress: the search for new ‘superalloys’

Managing stress: the search for new ‘superalloys’

Cambridge-Jet-IntroDesigning efficient jet engines is a huge challenge, in part because of the extreme environments inside them, where temperatures can soar above the melting point of the turbine’s components, and the centrifugal forces are equivalent to hanging a double-decker bus from each blade.

This is compounded by demands for greater performance – to run hotter and faster than ever – while improving their efficiency and reducing emissions. This means designing the best possible materials with which to build them.

Enter the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre (UTC) at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge.

Founded in 1994, it is one of a global network of over 30 such centres. These form part of Rolls-Royce’s £1 billion annual investment in research and development, which also includes the Department of Engineering’s University Gas Turbine Partnership.

Engineers at the Centre are leading research to develop new superalloys – mixtures of metals capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures and stresses within the jet engine. These materials must combine superior mechanical strength with resistance to heat-induced deformation and corrosion.

Cambridge plays a leading role in a £50 million Strategic Partnership on structural metallic systems for advanced gas turbine applications funded jointly by Rolls-Royce and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and involving the Universities of Birmingham, Swansea, Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield, and Imperial College London.

Current jet engines predominantly use nickel based alloys that contain significant amounts of aluminium and up to a dozen other elements. Even the smallest of adjustments to levels of each component can make a significant difference to the structure at a microscopic level, and hence to the superalloy’s properties.

“It’s rather like adjusting the ingredients in a cake – increasing one ingredient might produce one sought-after property, but at the sake of another,” explains Dr Howard Stone, Principal Investigator of the Strategic Partnership. “We need to find the perfect chemical recipe.”

Through a combination of computer modelling and experimental experience, the researchers select components – including both the ‘usual suspects’ and more exotic (though still cost-effective) elements – that can be melted together in precise quantities to produce a prototype material whose mechanical properties can be tested exhaustively.

The team currently has 12 patents with Rolls-Royce, covering a range of new superalloy compositions as well as new materials that may ultimately supersede nickel-based superalloys.

The collaboration between academic and industrial partners has been essential, explains Dr Stone: “New alloys typically take ten years and many millions of pounds to develop for operational components. We simply couldn’t do this work without Rolls-Royce. For the best part of two decades we’ve had a collaboration that links fundamental materials research through to industrial application and commercial exploitation.”

Dr Justin Burrows, Project Manager at Rolls-Royce, agrees: “Our academic partners understand the materials and design challenges we face in the development of gas turbine technology. Improvements like the novel nickel and steel alloys developed in Cambridge are key to helping us meet these challenges and to maintaining our competitive advantage.”

Expand for more
Turning new ideas into commercial realities

A University of Cambridge spin-out has commercialised a new cancer diagnostic based on cutting-edge genomics and molecular approaches.

Managing stress: the search for new ‘superalloys’

Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre (UTC) at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy,founded in 1994, it is one of a global network of over 30 such centres.

Consortium to launch £40 million Apollo Therapeutics Fund

Three global pharmaceutical companies (AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson Innovation) and the technology transfer offices of three world-leading universities (Imperial College London, University of Cambridge and UCL) have joined forces with a combined £40 million to create the Apollo Therapeutics Fund.

Hybrid-electric aeroplane from Boeing and the University of Cambridge

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, working with Boeing, have successfully tested the first aircraft powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system.

University - business collaboration in services vis-à-vis manufacturing firms

Collaboration between universities and industry is an important enabler of innovation in many industries, but study used to focus on the manufacturing sector.

Place related collaboration

How are universities in the UK positioning their resources and strengths differentially to contribute to innovation and economic development?

Santander SME Growth Club at Cambridge

Santander UK is strengthening its partnership with Cambridge Judge Business School by supporting a new SME Growth Club .

Mott MacDonald and Cambridge Knowledge Exchange

Mott MacDonald engineer Katie Liu has taken part in a secondment to Cambridge's Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC).

BP Institute for Multiphase Flow at Cambridge

The BP Institute for Multiphase Flow was established by BP in 1999/2000 via an endowment fund of approximately £25m. The Institute conducts open research across a wide range of topics under the theme of multiphase flow and surface chemistry. The topics range from the microscale to ocean mixing, and involves industrial relationships from oil industry to paint and food.

Cambridge: A magnet for global business

The entrepreneurial spirit pervades every aspect of Cambridge life.