skip to primary navigationskip to content

Reuse of steel and aluminium without melting

Daniel Cooper

Carbon dioxide emissions must be dramatically reduced to avoid the potentially dangerous effects of climate change. The steel and aluminium industries produce large amounts of carbon dioxide, accounting for 6% of anthropogenic emissions. Previous studies have shown that in these industries there is limited scope for further improvements in energy efficiency. Material efficiency strategies can, however, further reduce emissions. This thesis focuses on materially efficient reuse without melting. A scoping study of current reuse found three opportunities, an examination of which forms the basis of this thesis: reusing components at end of product life; extending the lifespan of products; and reusing manufacturing scrap.

The opportunity to reuse components has received little attention to date and there is no clearly defined set of strategies or barriers to enable assessment of appropriate component reuse; neither is it possible to predict future levels of reuse. This thesis presents a global assessment of the potential for reusing steel and aluminium components. A combination of top-down and bottom-up analyses is used to allocate the final destinations of current global steel and aluminium production to final products. A substantial catalogue has been compiled for these products characterizing key features of steel and aluminium components including design specifications, requirements in use, and current reuse patterns. To estimate the fraction of end-of-life metal components that could be reused for each product, the catalogue formed the basis of a set of semi-structured interviews with industrial experts. The results suggest that approximately 30% of steel and aluminium used in current products could be reused. Barriers against reuse are examined, prompting recommendations for redesign that would facilitate future reuse.

In order to understand how product lifespans can be extended it must first be understood why products are replaced. A simple framework with which to analyse failure is applied to the products that dominate steel use, finding that they are often replaced because a component/sub-assembly becomes degraded, inferior, unsuitable or worthless. In light of this, four products, which are representative of high steel content products in general, are analysed at the component level, determining profiles of cumulative steel mass over the lifespan of each product. The results show that the majority of the steel components are underexploited ­– still functioning when the product is discarded. In particular, the potential lifespan of the steel-rich structure is typically much greater than its actual lifespan. Evidence from twelve case studies, in which product or component life has been increased, is used to tailor life-extension strategies to each reason for product failure, providing practical guidelines for designers.

There is currently no commercial method of reusing small manufacturing scrap; however, previous research has demonstrated that extruded profiles can be created from small clean aluminium scrap, the scrap fragments solid-state welding together when extruded. In order to evaluate potential applications for these profiles four case studies are conducted in collaboration with aluminium producers and product manufacturers. It was found that strong and formable profiles could be produced from scrap. However, contaminated scrap sources, unreliable bonding and poor surface quality limited their potential for commercial use. No model exists for solid-state weld strength that is applicable to scrap extrusion. This prevents optimisation of the existing extrusion process and the development of new, potentially better, processes. Subsequently, this thesis presents a new model of weld strength as a function of relevant deformation parameters. The model is evaluated using a new experiment in which the deformation conditions can be varied independently. The experiments establish the basic relationships between deformation parameters and weld strength. The model correctly predicts these trends with predicted weld strengths typically lying within the experimental error range.

The technical assessment of reuse presented in this thesis demonstrates the scope of potential change. If implemented, the opportunities presented would greatly increase the reuse of steel and aluminium, reducing the emissions emitted from liquid metal production in conventional recycling.