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Can Russian scientists speed up the process of import substitution?

Duma deputies called on the government to change its import substitution strategy for the production of building materials, since many of them, including all bricks and tiles, are still produced using Western equipment. It is obvious that in the foreseeable future, if no decisive measures are taken, it will begin to stand idle due to breakdowns and lack of spare parts for repairs. This will have a negative impact on one of the most important industries of the national economy.

However, other sectors of the economy are in no less need of rapid import substitution. Everyone in our country has probably heard about the problems of AvtoVAZ, which has to supply "lighter" versions of its models to dealers. Due to the lack of components new Ladas are now without ABS, airbags and some other important components.

Other machine-building companies are also experiencing problems and are urgently forced to look for new partners instead of European suppliers. According to Dmitry Teplov, the director of the Krasnokamsk RMZ, there are exactly two options: either use the services of Asian companies or cooperate with Russian small and medium-sized businesses.

The plant he heads has been manufacturing for 20 years the forage harvesting equipment under the Italian license, in particular, balers to form hay bales, packers, and front loaders. Since the end of February, the top-management has to act like a squirrel in a wheel to ensure the stability of production - for example, it is necessary to look for a replacement for the Italian hydraulic systems. But the gamble in this case is worth it. After all, the share of imported machines on the Russian agricultural equipment market before the sanctions were introduced in 2022 was about 40%. This is a niche which our entrepreneurs can now occupy.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов

Import substitution is also taking place in oil refining. It intensified back in 2014 after the introduction of restrictive measures by the West in connection with the return of Crimea to Russia. There are certain successes in this area. Thus, in just a few years, the share of imported catalysts at refineries has decreased from 62% to 37%, and the share of catalysts used in petrochemicals - from 64% to 26%. On the whole, however, the pace of transition to domestic analogues was insufficient, and for some items, despite the obvious demand for such work, the share of imports remained very high, up to 100%.

This was partly due to the lack of internal reserves for manufacturing products that were competitive not only in price, but also in quality. Today, given that the search for new suppliers often takes place in an emergency mode, this very problem may become one of the significant obstacles to the sustainable development of our economy in the context of the ongoing sanctions pressure.

What do scientists say? Are they ready to offer innovative solutions and implement them in production in order to increase the attractiveness of the "made in Russia" brand? For example, in such an important segment as increasing the strength properties of metals and alloys in order to increase the serviceability and durability of machines and equipment, as well as reducing their cost. To put it bluntly, scientific research in this area is a little more successful abroad than in our country. But Russian researchers also have something to offer to the business.

© Форпост Северо-Запад

"There are various ways to improve the performance characteristics of metal products. In particular, their wear resistance and ability to resist corrosion. This is especially important if the equipment is used to work in aggressive environments, for example, in petrochemical production. In our opinion, one of the most promising methods is to form a diffusion layer on the surface of the product by chemical heat treatment. This technology, of course, is not new, but we are working to give it an additional impetus for development," says Andrey Mikhailov, a third-year graduate student at the St. Petersburg Mining University.

He is one of the authors of the work "Formation of diffusion metal coatings from liquid-metallic melts on steel products" (the research team also includes Alexei Sivenkov, Darina Konchus, and Evgeny Pryakhin). The project has already received a patent for invention and has won a number of prestigious competitions, such as the St. Petersburg Technical Fair and the Archimedes Salon of Innovations.

"Initially, the formation of the diffusion layer required expensive vacuum equipment, which reduced the attractiveness of using this method. But we found an opportunity to simplify the technology through the use of open shaft furnaces and reduce the time it takes to achieve a positive result. Isolation of the transport melt from oxidation in this case takes place by applying on its surface a special glassy protective layer consisting of high-temperature fluxes. This makes it possible to achieve in the process of saturation of steel samples with nickel, chromium or their complexes the formation of a diffusion layer of the required depth. In case of holding at 950 degrees C it averages 18 micrometers, and at 800 degrees C - 5 micrometers," says Andrei Mikhailov.

At the moment, scientists from St. Petersburg Mining University are conducting their research on an experimental setup assembled at the university. But in the foreseeable future they will be ready to start pilot tests. This is necessary in order to determine the real production capacity that will be needed to reach the industrial scale of manufacturing high-strength metal products, as well as to understand the exact payback period of the project.

The chances that such innovations, like pieces of a puzzle, will fit together and guarantee the success of the import substitution process without loss of product quality, of course, exist. But in reality it will happen only if the Government takes on the mission to create a single base of big business needs in those or other developments. And it will start to set clear objectives for science. In other words, to clearly formulate in which specific areas today the breakthrough technologies are most in demand and in which chains of added value domestic engineering companies can harmoniously integrate. So far, scientists, as well as small and medium-sized entrepreneurs often have to act at random, not having a clear idea of whether their proposal will be interesting enough for large manufacturers or not.