Lab name: Use Less Group

Lead professor: Julian Allwood

Location: Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, UK

Professor Julian Allwood.
Professor Julian Allwood.

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Using less, making more

Materials science hinges on the use of new and ever-more tailored materials. But using those materials comes at a cost – in terms of resources, energy, and emissions. Metal processing is particularly resource and energy heavy, but one researcher wants to help industry find ways to use less and become more sustainable.

Julian Allwood, of the University of Cambridge, has dedicated his career to improving materials and metals processing. As well as his academic duties, Julian is joint editor-in-chief of the Journal of Materials Processing Technology and has advised the UK government on reducing the impact of industry on climate change. Materials Today talked to Julian about his work…

How long has your group been running?

The group has been running for about 15 years. Previously we called ourselves the ‘Low Carbon and Material Processing Group’ – trying to find a name that conveyed the range of our interests, from new materials processing technologies to broad environmental systems analysis about materials, energy, and resources. However, our focus is now very strongly on the importance of reducing demand for materials – so we changed the name to something that conveyed our ‘USP’ more directly.

How many staff make up your group?

There are 23 staff in the group: me as group leader, three administrators, eleven post-docs and eight PhD students.

What are the major themes of research in your group?

Our overall focus is on reducing global demand for materials production in order to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve broken that into three themes: whole systems analysis of materials natural resources and energy; implementing material demand reduction in business and policy; new materials process technologies that reduce material demand.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

I spent the first ten years of my career working on contracts with the Alcoa Technical Centre in Pittsburgh on strip rolling of metals. I learnt a lot about modeling and controlling metal-forming processes, but I found it difficult to develop an independent research career in an area that was already so mature. 

So when I moved to Cambridge in 2000, I was asked to initiate an activity in ‘Sustainable Manufacturing’ without really knowing what it meant! I was also encouraged to look around more broadly for a research theme. The combination of systems analysis, business implementation, and technology development that we’re pursuing today is a result of the next 15 years of pushing on doors and trying to identify underlying questions behind the problems we keep encountering.

What has been your highest impact/most influential work to date?

This is a crucial question for me – I’m driven much more by addressing the problem (reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions) than by developing any particular methodology or skill set, so my only metric for our success is whether we’re causing change. 

It is actually pretty hard to tell what is effective or not, but a few things that I think have worked well are:

  • We developed the technology of laser ablation of toner print to allow ‘un-printing’ of office paper. Rather than recycling paper by pulping it, our approach allows for yesterday’s unwanted print to be cleaned off the paper and re-used directly within the office. This has led to a spin-out company Reduse Ltd., which has raised £800,000 in investment and employed several people to take the technology forwards to a full scale demonstrator.
  • Our book, Sustainable Materials: with both eyes open, which sets out the case for addressing industrial emissions by reducing demand for material production and demonstrates how it could happen in practice, has worked well. We’ve given it away for free at, but it’s also sold well and is now in a second edition. Last year Bill Gates listed it as one of his best six books of the year.
  • We invented a new process of flexible mandrel-free spinning and built a demonstrator machine in our lab, which is now being scaled up to a £1m industrial-scale machine at the MTC Catapult Centre in the UK. It’s great to see an idea that started as a sketch in my office turn into something at scale. If all works well, it will be soon be in use facilitating the production of a range of equipment for new medical diagnostics.
  • Back in 2011, we predicted that the world had as many blast furnaces as it would ever need and that the European steel industry was facing a crisis. This has been made very apparent this year with the collapse of Tata Steel in the UK. Out of our work on material demand reduction and systems analysis, I wrote a 12-page strategy document proposing an alternative bright future for steel in the UK – based on upcycling scrap steel and re-integrating the steel supply chain. Although I’m not sure whether it influenced the UK government much, it put me in touch with one of the bidders for Tata’s UK operations and I’m now an external advisor for that bid. If the bid is successful, there’s a rich potential to see many of our ideas translated directly into a very positive future for UK industry.
PhD student Chris Cleaver with ring rolling machine, The Lord of the Rings.
PhD student Chris Cleaver with ring rolling machine, The Lord of the Rings.

What facilities and equipment does your group have?

The tradition in Cambridge is not to have big labs or lots of equipment, so our department has a lot of shared facilities that allow us to start exploring new areas quite flexibly. However, our metal forming research has led to development of several new processes – aiming at net shape production with computer control replacing dedicated tooling – and we have an area in a shared lab with several new machines that we’ve built and which I find very exciting.

Do you have a favorite piece of kit or equipment?

I’m always most excited about the current project – of course! – and we’re just commissioning a fabulous new ring rolling machine… The Lord of the Rings. It has 12 degrees of freedom and we hope will be able to make net shape rings for turbines for the oil and gas industry, for example, in a novel and valuable way. We’ve tested this using our smaller model machine, with plasticine acting as a model material for hot steel – but now we’ll be able to find out whether the same ideas work at scale on real metal.

What is the key to running a successful group?

It’s about achieving a repeated string of miracles in which a great idea, a great industrial partner, a great student, and generous government funding all come together at the same time. It seems astonishing that it can ever happen, but somehow it does – and with all four components in place, we have a good chance of delivering a really satisfying project.

How do you plan to develop the group in the future?

I’m beginning to learn more about the limits to the actions that the government can take to stimulate the changes of direction that are required to achieve emissions reductions targets, so I anticipate that we’ll be focusing more directly on the private sector. With all three aspects of our work, I think we still have a lot to learn about exactly how we can deliver results that can be implemented in the short term but which lead to meaningful change, not just ‘green’ window-dressing.

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Key publications

  1. M. McBrien, J.M. Allwood, N.S. Barekar. Tailor Blank Casting - Control of sheet width using an electromagnetic edge dam in aluminium twin roll casting. Journal of Materials Processing Technology, 224 (2015) 60-72.
  2. M.C. Moynihan, J.M. Allwood. Utilization of structural steel in buildings. Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 470 (2014) art. no. 20140170.
  3. D.R. Leal-Ayala, J.M. Allwood, M. Schmidt, I. Alexeev. Toner-print removal from paper by long and ultrashort pulsed lasers. Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 468 (2012) 2272-2293.
  4. O. Music, J.M. Allwood. Flexible asymmetric spinning. CIRP Annals - Manufacturing Technology 60 (2011) 319-322.
  5. J.M. Allwood, M.F. Ashby, T.G. Gutowski, E. Worrell. Material efficiency: A white paper. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 55 (2011) 362-381.
  6. J.M. Allwood, J.M. Cullen, R.L. Milford. Options for achieving a 50% cut in industrial carbon emissions by 2050. Environmental Science and Technology, 44 (2010)  1888-1894.
  7. J.M. Cullen, J.M. Allwood. The efficient use of energy: Tracing the global flow of energy from fuel to service. Energy Policy, 38 (2010) 75-81.