Crystallization research improves metal purification process in aluminum recycling

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Researcher Dr. Biao Cai of the School of Metallurgy and Materials at the University of Birmingham used sophisticated high-speed x-ray imaging to record the formation of microcrystals as alloys cool and solidify under a magnetic field . A mathematical model was developed by his collaborator, Dr Andrew Kao of the University of Greenwich to predict whether microcrystals would form and what shape they would have. The model predicted that “screw-shaped” helical crystals would form under the influence of strong magnetic stirring, and high-speed x-rays confirmed that this had happened.

Although these crystals are only a few micrometers wide (ten times smaller than a human hair), they have implications for industrial scale processes. Biao explains, “These microscopic crystals ultimately determine the physical properties of the alloy. Being able to adjust their shape, structure and direction of growth will allow us to improve the manufacturing and recycling processes of metals and alloys. ”

Biao has already invented a technique to improve recycling of aluminum by removing iron. Iron is a harmful element that can weaken aluminum and limit its use in high-end applications such as airplanes. Existing methods of removing iron during recycling are either expensive or inefficient, but Biao’s simple and inexpensive technique uses magnets and a temperature gradient to remove iron contamination.

The invention was patented by the University of Birmingham Enterprise and supported by the Midlands Innovation Commercialization of Research Accelerator which awarded Biao a grant to build a large-scale prototype.


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