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How science helps the aviation industry reduce import dependence

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El 6 announced that it has started mass production of graphitized anodes for magnesium electrolysis, whose production technology was developed by a team of scientists from St. Petersburg Mining University together with the Group's scientific and technological center. At present, the innovative products are going through a three-year test cycle at the production site of VSMPO-AVISMA, a Rostec subsidiary. As Forpost found out, this is about reducing the dependence on imports in aircraft building.

Without a doubt, the industry that suffered the most from the coronavirus pandemic was air transportation. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that they will fall by 55% in 2020, which will be a real disaster for this market segment. However, its participants are trying to maintain a modest optimism and even announce plans to add new equipment to their fleets.

For example, buyers for 59 Sukhoi Superjets have already been found. The head of the United Aircraft Corporation Yury Slyusar told about it during the meeting with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the beginning of August. He also spoke about successes in import substitution. In particular, the new MS-21 aircraft will be equipped with domestic PD-14 engines, which have proven to be excellent during the tests.

This is by no means the only Russian development that is fully ready to be put into production. However, we cannot yet speak of a significant reduction in the demand for foreign components in the civilian aircraft industry. If in 2015 their share was more than 80%, now it has dropped to 70% for the Superjet and 30-40% for the MS-21.

As before, there is a large import component in the products of those enterprises that produce parts and separate units for our airliners or materials for their production. Until recently, Russia did not even have competitive production of graphite anodes suitable for magnesium electrolysis (magnesium-based alloys are widely used in aircraft construction due to their low specific weight and high mechanical strength).

© Форпост Северо-Запад

"We know how to make graphite, and we do it quite well. But it is undesirable to use it in electrolysers because it is not resistant to oxidation in the air at the high temperature required for magnesium production (up to 700 °С). Because of this, the anodes are destroyed, and they have to be replaced, which is a rather time-consuming operation. In order to avoid downtime and reduce operating costs, they have long been impregnated with special antioxidant melts or solutions all over the world. This technology ensures reliable operation of anodes during the whole certified service life between overhauls of equipment when they are replaced in any case," says Roman Feshchenko, associate professor of the Metallurgy Department of the Saint Petersburg Mining University.

The group of scientists of the university that he headed had the task to change the situation and free Russian magnesium producers from the need to buy graphite anodes abroad. This was all the more timely given that the Zaporozhye plant had been their supplier for many years. However, after the well-known events of six years ago, the partnership with our Ukrainian colleagues was broken, which made the creation of our own methodology that increases the resistance of graphite to oxidation at high temperatures even more necessary.

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The initiator of its creation was VSMPO-AVISMA Corporation, for which magnesium is a by-product (the main product is titanium and end products made of it). The corporation submitted a target order to the scientific and technological center of the El 6, which, in its turn, involved scientists of the St. Petersburg Mining University. The result of this collaboration was the assembly of magnesium electrolysers with unique domestic anodes inside. They have already passed a three-year test cycle and are ready for mass production.

"The relevance of this innovation is dictated not only by the need to move away from import dependence, but also by the obsolescence of the technology created back under the Soviet Union and implemented at Ukrgrafit. Besides, the prices for electrode graphite due to the reduction of capacities in China due to environmental restrictions have grown considerably now. Therefore, among other things, we had to increase the profitability of the electrolysers. And we managed to do that. According to preliminary estimates, we increased the service life of anodes by 2.5-3 times, while their cost increased by only 20-30%," explains Roman Feshchenko (graduate students Roman Eryomin and Vitaly Dydin, as well as students Daniil Gordeev and Olga Erokhina worked together with him on the project).

EPM plans to supply its new product not only to Russian magnesium producers, but also to other countries. Experts believe that it is quite capable of winning competition for the CIS market from Ukrainian Graphite, which until recently was a monopolist there.

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"Anodes for magnesium electrolysis are a new product for El 6, and there are no analogues of such production in Russia. A number of experimental batches have already been delivered to customers in Kazakhstan and Israel," said Nikolai Naumov, the Group's CEO.

However, the possibilities of using the technology created at the Mining University are much wider than just producing the metal that is in demand in the aviation industry. It can, for example, be adapted for electric steel production as well, which is much larger in scale. A number of specialized corporations, including Severstal, have already shown interest in the innovation.