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Innovations in Energy Efficient Process Development for the Foundation Industries

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Sarah Connolly, Innovation Technologist at Innovate UK is responsible for driving innovation in the Foundation Industries. In this post, she explores how innovations in process developments can reduce environmental impact and improve competitiveness.

Energy Efficient Process Developments

The foundation industries encompass several high temperature processing stages, with energy costs representing up to 40% of total production costs.

Innovative thinkers are challenging the way that these processes are being run from developing new processes in the lab, to critically analysing industrial processes, or completely redefining traditional techniques.

A previous blog post looked at the potential for embedding heat recovery within these process routes to capture and utilise waste heat. However what if less heat was required in the first place? What alternative processing methods could be used to achieve the same outcome?

Another blog piece looked at uses for some of the materials wastes generated by these industries, but what if we could use them as raw materials for our production processes, heavily reducing the demand upon virgin raw materials? Recycling of aluminium, for example, saves around 95% of the energy needed to make the metal from raw materials.

Early Success

The Fast Start Competition, the first collaborative R&D competition run by the Transforming Foundation Industries Challenge. The Challenge provides up to £5 million for cross-sector, collaborative, short duration, feasibility studies and industrial research and development projects that focused upon common resource and energy efficiency opportunities and 13 successful projects are due to launch shortly.

The three projects covered in this blog post looked at:

Re-usable Net-Zero Carbon Structures

A consortium spanning the value chain of the construction industry, from steel and concrete producers all the way to construction firm and project lead Mace Ltd aims to make energy-efficient, reusable structures for achieving zero-carbon buildings.

Traditionally commercial infrastructure projects have used fabricated steel elements, assembled on site with in-situ concrete and reinforcement. The project proposes an offsite alternative with structural beams using recycled steel and cement free concrete.

This alternative concrete mix, developed by project partners DB Group, removes the dependency upon ordinary Portland cement for concrete production, the majority of concrete’s carbon emissions, and utilises wastes from other foundation industries in its production.

Currently limited in its application by longer curing times, the offsite production of these modules enables trials of this new cement alternative, which will be delivered to site as sub-assemblies and installed as a single operation.

Compared to conventional construction, this will reduce weight by 10%, deliveries to site by 40%, and reduced embodied energy (and therefore carbon reduction) of 80%.

Hybrid Sintering for Decarbonisation and Productivity in Manufacturing

A consortium spanning the ceramics and glass sectors, led by Lucideon Ltd look to assess the possibility of combining two novel sintering technologies to develop an energy efficient process for use in both sectors.

Ceramic and glass processing utilise sintering to convert the raw powder input into a solid mass. This is a highly energy intensive process, with peak temperatures of 1200-1800°C being required over many hours.

Flash sintering, a technology developed by project partners Lucideon, is the application of an electric field to accelerate the kinetics of the sintering process, reducing the required furnace temperature and sintering time.

Cold sintering is a pressure assisted densification, utilising a catalyst to provide a liquid phase to aid rearrangement and interdiffusion of particles, developed by the University of Sheffield meaning under a heavily reduced sintering temperature, sintering occurs over a matter of minutes.

The consortium propose that the combination of the two processes in a hybrid flash/cold system could provide densification within seconds at ultra-low temperatures compared to conventional sintering, and an energy reduction of up to 95%.

The full list of projects can be found here Fast Start Project Winners.

Superalloy Atomisation Trials using Revert and TurNings (SATURN)

Through Covid-19 specific recovery funding, Liberty Powder Metals received funding to convert contaminated metal waste turnings and machining by-products from UK manufacturing sites.

Then converting them into high purity, high value nickel alloy or stainless steel powders for use in additive manufacturing applications including aerospace and medical. This upcycling could increase the value of this otherwise waste material by 10 times and prevent valuable metals entering landfill.

The turnings will be converted to a more usable form to aid handling and melted within the Liberty vacuum induction melt system before being atomised to powder in the newly commissioned atomiser.

Get Involved

This is an exciting time for the foundation industries, with the opportunity for transformational changes in the processes, approaches, or products.

For the first time, cross-sector funding is enabling the development of mutually beneficial innovation across these industries, providing opportunities to redefine the way these industries operate.

These projects are just the beginning of what will be achieved through this ISCF competition, with sustainable improvements being introduced across the numerous stages and we are eager to hear about any ideas you may have.

We are now open for applications for the next round of funding. For details of this open competition and to keep up to date with the new challenge announcements visit the Transforming Foundation Industries Challenge Website.


Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Dr_S_Connolly

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