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Stainless Steel Starships, Steel Etching, and Moves in the Aluminium Market

As metal suppliers, UK metals news is not enough! The international waters we swim in are nothing if not volatile, and they’re always fascinating. February has already delivered some fascinating stories around fresh uses for metals and exciting ways to manipulate them. Here’s the news.

SpaceX builds a steel starship

Steel is heavy. Spacecraft have to overcome incredible forces to fly upwards and out of the planet’s atmosphere. It doesn’t seem particularly sensible to build a spaceship from a heavy stainless steel alloy, but that’s exactly what Elon Musk and his space exploration firm SpaceX are planning. So what’s the story?

Steel long ago fell out of favour for use in propellant tanks, and hasn’t been used in that way since the 1960s. But Musk’s starship may be made from a special stainless steel alloy rather than the original carbon fibre they’d planned to use.

Apparently the cost was one factor. Carbon fibre costs $135 a kilo. But because 35% of it gets wasted when the pieces of the object being made are cut out, it actually costs more like $200 a kilo. Stainless steel, on the other hand, comes in at a comparatively tiny, weeny $3 a kilo.

There’s more. Stainless steel’s high melting point also delivers a big advantage. Both carbon fibre and aluminium have a steady-state operating temperature limited to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, 150 degrees Celsius. Any more than that, for any length of time, fatally weakens them. While some carbon fibres can stand temperatures of 400 degrees Fahrenheit, the strength of the material is still compromised. Steel is different. You can heat it to as much as 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, 870 degrees Celsius, with no ill effects.

According to Musk, they’ll create two stainless-steel layers, joined with stringers, between which is sent either fuel or water. The micro-perforations on the outside let the fuel or water bleed through on the outside, so the ship acts as its own heat sink, and might not even need protective thermal tiles. Musk has promised a “full technical presentation of Starship after the test vehicle we’re building in Texas flies, hopefully March/April.”

On the bright side, as stainless steel suppliers in the UK we’re looking forward to finding out about the next step in this amazing story. On the down side, even if Musk succeeds and the ship flies, humans are highly unlikely to travel to Mars any time soon. The very fact that the human body can’t survive in good health in zero gravity conditions for long periods of time is one of the biggest drawbacks, and there’s no sign of a solution.

Super-precision etching creates superb quality components

As reported by ECN Magazine recently, (link to https://www.ecnmag.com/article/2019/01/stainless-steel-etching-faster-way-manufacture-complex-precision-components), you can etch any number of different metals. But stainless steel remains the top choice thanks to its versatility, the numerous grades available, and the enormous number of finishes you can achieve.

Chemical etching produces precision components by taking away metal that’s exposed through a photo-resistant mask. It’s so much better than conventional sheet metalworking, not least because it doesn’t degrade and there’s neither any heat nor force used during the process. Plus it’s possible to achieve more or less limitless complexity thanks to digital tooling, with no costly, difficult-to-adapt steel moulds required.

As a result large quantities of product can be reproduced with absolutely zero tool wear, and that means the millionth part produced is just as good as the first one. Exactly the same, in fact. Better still you can adapt and change digital tooling in no time, usually within the hour, which means it is perfect for prototyping as well as high volume runs.

All this means producers enjoy low-risk, if not no-risk, design optimisation. The experts say that the turnaround time is an impressive 90% faster than regular stamped parts, great news when stamping also demands investment in moulds. Low cost, convenience and no hard tooling to do means there are few if any barriers to entry. And you can create a complex design within days, something that was impossible pre-digital.

Ups and downs in the aluminium market

As a popular aluminium stockist we keep our eyes on the aluminium world. It looks like the aluminium market is due to experience another big ex-China deficit. And a perfect storm of circumstances involving lifting sanctions, falling input costs and weaker premiums mean most experts think the market is capped… at least for now.

Trump’s sanctions against the Russian aluminium giant Rusal created an extremely volatile market throughout most of 2018. No wonder when they’re the biggest producer outside China, responsible for around 13% of the total ex-China aluminium supply. The US Treasury finally lifted their sanctions against Rusal in late January, but the market is still suffering from structural problems. Most of the current growth in supply is coming from China, but ex-China growth remains in free-fall and isn’t currently mitigating the ex-China deficit.

At the same time the Canadian Aluminium Recycler Matalco is all set to construct a massive US$80 Million aluminium recycling plant in Wisconsin. The plant will generate 230 million pounds of billet every year, mostly from scrap aluminium, and the end product will be sold for aluminium extrusion. The new plant build will kick off in spring 2019 and is expected to be finished within 18 months, a facility that’ll be designed on the cutting edge of aluminium production tech.

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