Magnesium: Its rise and forecasted reign in manufacturing

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By Makhan Singh, Business Development Manager for the Institute of Sustainable Futures at Birmingham City University 

Chances are that you’re familiar with magnesium in some form or another, whether that’s the Mg symbol on the periodic table, as a health supplement, or in manufacturing. But are you familiar with its story and its role in the world today? Magnesium is an incredibly misunderstood material which has been through a tough time and been tarnished with a bad reputation. But why have the tables turned and what do we need to do about?

As a Business Development Manager for the Institute of Sustainable Futures at Birmingham City University, I develop partnerships and initiate collaborative projects, particularly in manufacturing and automotive sectors, having worked in that space for over 25 years. Prior to joining Birmingham City University, I worked with Meridian Lightweight Technologies UK (MLTUK), one of the world’s largest and the UK’s only magnesium High Pressure Die Casting (HPDC) company. Having accumulated experience and developed crucial insight during my career, I’ve seen the incredible business and societal impact magnesium can have and I feel compelled to dispel the myth. I believe we should embrace magnesium, celebrate its achievements and benefit from the innovation it can bring to the business world. This is why Birmingham City University created a Magnesium Innovation Group and our Annual Magnesium Symposium to bring our exciting research and developments within industry together to change perceptions of this amazing material.

The benefits of magnesium? 

Magnesium is the lightest structural metal in the world; up to around 70% lighter than steel and between 30-50% lighter than aluminium. It’s the eighth most abundant material in the world, has great heat dissipation properties, 100% recyclable and a fire-retardant material.  It has excellent noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) properties too. However, despite all of these amazing properties, Magnesium is a widely misunderstood material.

Why did the automotive and manufacturing industries stop using magnesium?  

Magnesium has historically suffered a lot of bad press, which led to many manufacturers discontinuing its use. It’s highly reactive with oxygen, meaning that it’s very hard to extinguish it in the rare occasions that it catches fire. There has been instances throughout history where this has occurred and largely contributed to its misunderstanding. 

One case was The Falklands War, when British Navy ship HMS Sheffield was bombed and a hole ripped through the boat. Due to the magnesium components, the ship caught fire, sank and continued to burn under the sea for days after. These instances were used to argue a case against magnesium, and it was banned in the aerospace industry and widely underutilised in other sectors as a result. Magnesium has also been largely absent on manufacturing teaching curriculums, particularly at universities. Engineers across the world have a comprehensive knowledge of plastics, carbon fibres, steel and aluminium, but have minimal knowledge about magnesium when selecting design parts.

Why should we start using magnesium again? 

Forty years on from its initial ban in the aerospace industry, the International Magnesium Association has proven that magnesium is in fact a fire-retardant material and successfully lifted its ban in the aerospace industry.  

Magnesium’s natural properties make it an incredibly advantageous material for the automotive sectors. The way it flows and forms during diecasting means it can form very intricate lightweight parts and structures can be made as one piece to simplify design and lower assembly costs. Contrary to popular belief, it actually dissipates heat so it’s much less likely to heat up or catch fire than other metals. This is why mobile phones and laptops often use magnesium parts to prevent damage from overheating. Furthermore it can be melted down (past 650°C) and reused, so it’s also very sustainable.

How can it be used?

There’s a step change happening after 50 years in the car industry. Whilst petrol and diesel vehicles have been popular since the 1960s, the industry is moving towards the development of electric vehicles to reduce the impact of fossil fuels and climate change. Many vehicle manufacturers are focusing on extending the battery of electric vehicles so they can travel further with each charge, but if we can make these vehicles lighter they will use much less energy. This is just one of the innovative ways magnesium is beginning to be used by the automotive industry. 

What have we achieved so far? 

In order to kickstart the wide use of magnesium once again, it’s vital that we start to re-educate those with misconceptions to bring it back into the spotlight. Meridian kindly donated £10,000 to Birmingham City University, which allowed us to produce a book together showcasing magnesium and its incredible potential. We’ve received great interest from students and academics at the University, with magnesium-related projects being carried out in engineering, arts, psychology and health faculties. The book was well received by industry and has generated some interesting enquiries which make me feel hopeful that we are succeeding in changing magnesium’s perceptions.

Furthermore, we have already witnessed magnesium being used more widely in the manufacturing and automotive industries in the UK and across Europe. The Jaguar F-Pace, for example, features a lightweight magnesium front end carrier.

What future research is on the cards? 

Birmingham City University is working with a number of businesses and national bodies on specific technical projects, PR, art and installation projects. One example is our collaboration with Birmingham Airport to design a magnesium art sculpture in the form of the bird to represent flight. We’re hoping this will get the public engaged and the airlines interested in the magnesium story. We’re also currently working alongside Meridian, compiling a £6m funding application to the government to transform foundries and use digital technology to lift them up into the 21st century so magnesium can be produced with a more modern methodology. As a foundry, Meridian produce a lot of CO2. In the long term we’re looking at a project to use this CO2, which is typically seen as a harmful by-product, and use it for a positive cause to boost crop growth.   

My gut feeling is that demand for magnesium will increase dramatically over the next five years, as will the research, development and expertise at Birmingham City University in this area.

If you are interested in getting to know Magnesium better and finding about how you can take advantage of its wonderful properties on your production line, you could collaborate with leading  Birmingham City University expertise on any light-weighting automotive or manufacturing projects. As a practice based university, we work closely with the industry partner and international body, The International Magnesium Association, which ensures all of our research has real-world societal or business impact. To initiate a collaboration, send an enquiry to The Institute of Sustainable Futures.

What is the Magnesium Symposium 2018? 

Following its success in 2017, the international event created and hosted in the UK by Birmingham City University is now in its second year. As well as providing an informative and insightful afternoon, The Magnesium Symposium 2018 on 23rd October will bring together individuals from the industry and areas of academia to develop a community of partnerships for future innovation. It will tell the story of magnesium and truly showcase its benefits and practical business applications in a diverse range of scenarios. The event is free to attend and will consist of a series of short and insightful presentations from academic experts and industry specialists.

How can I attend the Magnesium Symposium 2018? 

The Magnesium Symposium 2018 is open to all who are interested in finding out about the benefits of the material.  So, whether you’re already involved in the industry or simply interested in learning more about magnesium and its real-world applications, we invite you to join us and participate in the discussion! Sign up for your free ticket

 

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