Dr. Thomas Pretorius, who is involved in product development and pilot production at thyssenkrupp Steel Europe, works together with Alexander Hartmaier at the Interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Materials Simulation in Bochum, Germany. The institute specializes in simulation and modeling calculations.
What is ICAMS and what do you do here?
Hartmaier: The Interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Materials Simulation, or ICAMS for short, is an institute of the Ruhr University Bochum where we develop simulation models. We then use the model calculations we have made to research the characteristics and behavior of different materials. Our research takes all relevant parameters into account, including the atomic structure, microstructure, and macroscopic dimensions of the material.
What does that mean in practical terms?
Pretorius: In practice, certain properties such as strength, toughness, and corrosion resistance can only be tested using difficult, highly complex experiments. Using our model calculations here at ICAMS, we can develop and optimize new steels more precisely, more comprehensively, and faster than ever before because we now understand their structures and properties far better.
So the better you understand the structure, the more precisely you can derive the information you need?
Pretorius: Exactly. When the results of our simulations can be applied at the macro level, we can calculate material properties that are relevant for the application. For example with damage and crash behavior, we can look at where and when cracking occurs and under what conditions, and then we can influence that behavior.
Hartmaier: That is the advantage of the kind of simulation that we do here at ICAMS. The goal is to create such a precise simulation of the conditions that we can check the position of every atom at any given point. Imagine an MRI tube for materials. That doesn’t work in a running production process – it’s not possible to peer into the materials just like that.
Where do you start with this kind of work?
Hartmaier: First we look for processes that we can expect to learn the most from based on what we already know about the existing tools and models. Here we concentrate on areas that are also relevant for our research partner thyssenkrupp Steel Europe and its customers.
What industries benefit from your findings?
Pretorius: The goal is not only to improve certain classes of steel. Our methods are meant to be applied to the entire range of materials. Take high-strength steel, for example. This material is often used in cars, but it is found in pipe steels as well. There is also electrical steel, where we have to look at very specialized properties for its electromagnetic applications.
Does ICAMS concentrate exclusively on steel?
Hartmaier: Steel certainly plays an important role, but we also have projects that look at nickel-based superalloys. In my field, I also study thermal insulation layers and porous ceramics. Our institute is not entirely focused on steel. However, metals make up around 90 percent of our studies, and about 70 percent of those metals are steels. It is important to look a broad range of materials, otherwise it is easy to miss important scientific discoveries.
High-temperature alloys and ceramics are also of interest to Steel Europe...
Hartmaier: And hybrid materials! We are also starting to get involved in the areas of metal composites and polymers. These are extremely interesting classes of materials that will continue to become more important over the next ten years. We can’t afford to ignore them – either in research or as a company.
How many people work at ICAMS?
Hartmaier: We have around 80 scientists in all different fields – engineers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians. There is a lot of fluctuation, because many of our scientists are doctoral candidates working on developing and implementing new industrial methods.
Pretorius: Then there are our colleagues working for research partners and groups and our colleagues at the data center in Jülich who run the mainframe that make our complex calculations possible.
How do you keep everyone involved in the project up-to-date?
There are weekly meetings for each project and all of the employees get together for closed meetings three days a year. We also hold an annual Advanced Discussion in which we invite industrial partners and international guests to hold lectures and discuss current worldwide trends and findings with one another.
Partners such as Bosch, Bayer, and Salzgitter are normally our competitors, but here everyone works together. How does that work?
Pretorius: If companies want to get ahead when it comes to basic research, they have to work together. It is far too difficult to do it alone. Companies can achieve more when they cooperate – you can see that with the EU-sponsored projects.
Hartmaier: Cooperation has a long, honored tradition in academia. Here the mutual interest in a subject seems to be more important than the competitive thinking.
You are probably required to show that the money is being spent in the right ways. Is that correct?
Hartmaier: On a political level, industrial and scientific partners are all in the same boat. We know that innovation in Germany is strongly connected with materials technology and materials sciences, but this rarely results in the kind of sponsorship that pays for those innovations.
Pretorius: It’s rare that an entirely new material gets discovered. More often than not the focus lies on optimizing existing materials rather than developing new ones. However, all of these small changes have an enormous effect overall.
Hartmaier: Take the touchscreen for example. Optimizing the material glass was what made it possible to unlock what would end up being revolutionary innovations in smartphone and tablet technology.
What kind of benefits do your findings have for society as a whole?
Pretorius: Improving materials helps to improve the properties of components. This can lead to lighter-weight vehicles and reduce CO2 emissions. At the same time, we can have a positive effect on the environmental properties of future materials and optimizing production processes normally helps to reduce costs.
Hartmaier: And naturally the education at the university itself. When we put qualified people on the market who can understand and use cutting-edge computer simulations, that is good for society.
Will all materials be developed on computers in the future?
Hartmaier: I think that is and will remain science fiction. We need both labor and modeling to get the job done. The combination allows us to reach a new level and means that we can understand both the materials and their processes better. We are simply moving away from research based on experience and moving toward research based on knowledge.