At its core, voestalpine’s corporate strategy relies on leadership in innovation, technology, and quality. Hence research and development (R&D) as an integral part of the company’s business model is rooted in that precept.
The continuous development of both new products and new production processes is vital to any technology-driven company so that it can differentiate itself from the competition and remain successful in the market. Innovations are the key to voestalpine’s future success.
Research expenditures have climbed continually in recent years. The expenditures were a bit lower in the business year 2020/21 due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and measures such as short time work associated with it. But a budget of EUR 185 million for the business year 2021/22 reconnects the level of R&D activity to the multi-year rising trend and thus reflects the importance of R&D within the Group.
Research and development projects to reduce CO2
Since 1990, we have continually optimized the current steelmaking process (which relies on blast furnaces) with respect to both resource efficiency and emissions. This has made it possible to lower CO2 emissions by some 20%. As a result, the steel production facilities of the voestalpine Group are among the most CO2 efficient in the world. At this stage, however, the possibilities for lowering CO2 in steelmaking have largely been exhausted. It is clear from today’s vantage point that new production technologies will be necessary if we are to fulfill the EU’s requirements regarding further significant reductions.
With this in mind, voestalpine has developed a strategy that makes it possible to directly avoid CO2 emissions in steel production by the year 2030 based on a hybrid concept (“greentec steel”). This approach involves switching from the blast furnace route to the electric arc technology in stages and, in the longer term (i.e., by 2050), putting in place CO2-neutral production based on green hydrogen.
But greentec steel also encompasses electric arc technology that is used for smelting. The underlying systems approach poses major challenges to metallurgy. Approaches to alloys and raw materials must be adapted so that it is still possible—despite the undesirable by-products resulting from the use of scrap—to continue producing the kind of high-grade steel customers expect from voestalpine. We have already launched R&D projects to explore these issues.
The EU-sponsored “H2FUTURE” project was initiated in collaboration with our partners: VERBUND (Austria’s largest utility); Siemens; the Austrian Power Grid (APG); K1-MET (a metallurgical competence center); and TNO (a Dutch organization for applied scientific research). The world’s largest proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer facility in the steel industry was set up at voestalpine’s main production facility in Linz, Austria, with the aim of generating green hydrogen on an industrial scale. The six-megawatt facility has successfully completed all planned pilot programs since then.
There are other cutting-edge voestalpine projects besides H2FUTURE that rely on hydrogen as the technology that is key to achieving CO2-neutral steel production. A pilot plant was set up at the Group’s plant in Donawitz, Austria, as part of the groundbreaking “SuSteel” project (SuSteel meaning “sustainable steelmaking”) in collaboration with K1-MET and the University of Mining and Metallurgy in Leoben, Austria. The plant serves to generate crude steel directly from iron ore using hydrogen plasma in a single step, thus avoiding the pig iron stage.
The “Hyfor” research project (also based in Donawitz) is being carried out in cooperation with Primetals Technologies, the University of Mining and Metallurgy, and K1-MET. It is focused on the hydrogen-based direct reduction of iron ore to produce ultra-pure sponge iron as an input material for steelmaking.
voestalpine is evaluating technologies for the pyrolysis of natural gas in collaboration with RAG Austria (the largest energy storage company in the country) and the University of Mining and Metallurgy. This generates both hydrogen and solid carbon, in turn enabling CO2-neutral production of the hydrogen; as an added bonus, the carbon generated in the process would be deemed a valuable industrial raw material.
Digitalization, smart data, and virtual reality
The Metal Engineering Division’s broad portfolio ranges from wear-and-tear-resistant railroad track steel, to ultra-pure ball bearing steel, all the way to super-clean spring steel. All of this requires high-quality pre-materials. The broad know-how in metallurgy of the Research & Development unit provides the basis for products possessing extraordinary properties.
Digitalization in the sense of complete automation makes possible exact process parameter settings that have a bearing on both the purity and the homogeneity of the steel pre-material thus produced. Very pure steel possessing optimal surface properties can be manufactured on this basis. The process includes using numerical models in the bloom continuous caster that was recently started up.
The new voestalpine Welding Calculator is being used to expand the Group’s aggregate materials and processing know-how by numerical calculations that deliver precise welding parameters. In turn, this simplifies the planning and optimizing of complex welding processes.
Trailblazing materials, digital products, and additive manufacturing
Automotive industry customers are continually licensing new, high, and highest tensile steels. The resulting lightweight construction of autobodies leads to lower emissions from combustion engines or greater reach in connection with electric drive technology.
Ultra-high tensile steels are processed using continually refined, high-quality tool steel. The latter enhances the useful lives of the tools and reduces production waste.
Digital products combine steel as a raw material with additional functionalities and thus open up a broad range of uses. The concept of so-called “tailormade functional steel” (tfs) was successfully developed through to its final form. This involves integrating electrical conductive paths and the desired electronic sensor technology into a special varnish. The component is malleable and can be subjected to further processing. It can be used for many different purposes, for example, to heat surfaces, display the load weight of shelves, or measure a tank’s fill level. tfs can be used directly as a control element, but also as an integrated component with monitoring functions; it also enables prospective maintenance.
Both capacity utilization and the strain on railways are high and will continue to grow. This makes digital monitoring of railway infrastructure ever more important. Monitoring and diagnostic systems of rolling stock (trains), fixed assets, and environmental conditions make it possible to identify changes in timely fashion and to schedule prospective maintenance. This enhances both the security and the availability of railway networks. voestalpine has already developed the Phoenix MDS monitoring system. It serves to analyze the data collected by various sensors in order to further minimize train stoppage times, delays, and downtimes. This project was launched in collaboration with ÖBB Infrastruktur AG, the infrastructure arm of the Austrian Railways (ÖBB). once the project is completed in 2023 as planned, the Austrian rail network will have the most mature train monitoring system in all of Europe.
Additive manufacturing technology (3D printing), which is as innovative as it is resource-efficient, is optimally suited for producing complex geometries without any loss of materials. It is used, for example, in highly complex tempering and lightweight construction solutions for both the automotive and the consumer goods industries but also for applications in medical technology. Currently, a total of fifteen 3D printing facilities are being used at voestalpine’s seven additive manufacturing centers worldwide to produce technologically sophisticated custom products. The Group manufactures the highest-quality metal powder that is used as a pre-material for 3D printing at its own facilities in Kapfenberg, Austria (voestalpine BÖHLER Edelstahl GmbH & Co KG) and Hagfors, Sweden (Uddeholms AB). voestalpine also provides component construction and component simulation upon customer request and/or in collaboration with customers.
The so-called “new business incubator” (nbi) was established for the purpose of generating ideas and business models. It serves to rapidly and successfully translate innovative ideas into practice beyond the parameters of voestalpine’s core business.