Scoping study on metals used in specialist alloys in the aerospace industry

Singh, N.; Lusty, P.; Josso, P.. 2023 Scoping study on metals used in specialist alloys in the aerospace industry. Nottingham, UK, British Geological Survey, 54pp. (OR/23/016) (Unpublished)

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This scoping study assesses the use of specialist alloys in the UK aerospace and defence industries. It considers their applications and importance; material production and supply chains, and the availability and quality of associated data and information; the market characteristics of the alloying metals; and UK import reliance and key dependencies. It also explores supply chain risks and the concerns of material suppliers and consumers. The research is based on a combination of literature review, analysis of trade statistics and stakeholder consultation. The aerospace and defence industries are almost unique in terms of their essential requirements for a range of minor metals, used to produce specialist alloys, sometimes referred to as a high-performance or superalloys. These must combine extreme temperature resistance with the highest levels of mechanical integrity and resistance to corrosion and oxidation. It is only by using superalloys that improvements in the performance, fuel efficiency and emissions of aircraft engines have been achieved. Superalloys are typically nickel-, iron- or cobalt-based, with much smaller quantities of an array of additional alloying elements that are used as additives or coatings, owing to their highly specialist properties. Important additions include chromium, molybdenum, scandium, titanium, and sometimes ruthenium, tantalum, rhenium, hafnium, tungsten, niobium, and zirconium. Varying the composition allows the superalloys to meet and balance a wide range of performance requirements. Demand for superalloys is forecast to increase as the global aviation sector continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, orders for new commercial aircraft grow and suppliers tackle major production backlogs. There is also growing demand for superalloys and alloying metals from other established end-use sectors, most notably the nuclear power industry and industrial gas turbines for the power generation industry. Furthermore, there is increasing or emerging demand from other sectors, including automotive, and for space exploration. Secure and sustainable supply of superalloys and alloying metals, at acceptable prices are vital to support the international competitiveness of the UK aerospace and defence industries. These industries make a significant contribution to value added and export earnings. Substitution of the elements used in superalloys is generally extremely difficult, as each addition yields specific performance benefits and aerospace components are subject to strict certification processes. Recycling is used throughout the manufacturing process and product life cycle of aircraft engines to maximise recovery of metals from superalloys. This helps to reduce demand for virgin materials, thereby helping to mitigate supply chain risk and has significant environmental and sustainability benefits. The UK is almost entirely dependent on imports for its primary supply of alloying metals. Despite a lack of UK trade data for certain metals, the available data highlights the importance of trade relationships with specific countries. The most important suppliers of alloying metals to the UK are the USA, China, Japan, South Africa and several European Countries. Stakeholders in the UK aerospace supply chain that participated in this study were willing to provide high-level, technical information on the UK market for superalloys and alloying metals, and an overview of international supply chains. They were not forthcoming with detailed information on supply chains and volumes of material traded, and supply and purchasing relationships, as it is commercially sensitive. Concentration of production of the alloying metals and dependence on imports exposes the UK to several supply risks. Increasing demand for alloying metals globally, including in major producing countries that will prioritise the domestic market; growing intersectoral competition; limited market transparency, owing to long-term supply agreements and certain metals not being traded on exchanges; markets imbalances and price volatility; and the ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine present challenges for UK aerospace material supply chains. Some of the alloying elements are entirely or partially by-products of the extraction of another metal. This introduces an additional level of complexity to their markets and means supply is not always responsive to increased demand. Several UK companies highlighted concerns about the current market availability of hafnium and escalating prices. This is because of increasing demand, it being a by-product and not commercially viable to recycle, most material being tied into long-term supply agreements and developments in the Chinese market. UK businesses operating in the aerospace supply chain place a lot of emphasis on responsible sourcing and ensuring compliance with environmental, social and governance standards. It is typically covered in material supply contracts and adds to the cost of procurement. Data quality, reporting standards and illegal practices in the international market are of concern to companies. Geopolitical developments during the last year contribute to greater supply risk or likelihood of supply disruption for several alloying metals. To mitigate the risk, it was suggested that the UK Government should focus on resource diplomacy with key metal producing countries to develop more secure trade flows. This may include supporting domestic suppliers and consumers in negotiating material supply agreements with businesses in partner countries.

Item Type: Publication - Report
Funders/Sponsors: British Geological Survey, Department for Business & Trade
Additional Information. Not used in RCUK Gateway to Research.: This item has been internally reviewed, but not externally peer-reviewed.
Date made live: 29 Jun 2023 14:14 +0 (UTC)

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