On a distant planet, a robot shovels rocks into a ‘reactor’ which churns out metal powder used to ‘print’ parts for a base.
‘Terraforming’ – making planets habitable – might sound far-fetched, but it won Rotherham company Metalysis an award from the European Space Agency.
For this is not just sci fi, it is a proven process involving hi-tech equipment and a revolutionary method of creating weird and wonderful new metals that are lighter, stronger, harder and more corrosion-resistant than any-thing in existence today.
But although it offers a way to win the race into space, it is on earth where the company is having a huge impact.
Since a £10m ‘discovery centre’ opened on the Advanced Manufacturing Park last year, Metalysis has had visitors from 25 countries and is talking to “a lot of governments,” according to boss Dr Dion Vaughan.
Interest is so high it is planning to build a second unit up to 10 times the size to meet demand for research into exotic and previously ‘impossible’ alloys.
And Rotherham is very much a “front runner,” Dr Vaughan said.
Metalysis also has a factory in Wath-upon-Dearne which makes shipping-container-size ‘reactors’ that produce the alloys in powder form.
Mr Vaughan said: “The story of Sheffield goes back many centuries, but I’m confident history will look back on what we are doing and say this was a major turning point in innovation in the 20th century. I’m very proud to be here.
“Our early days were driven by some very high-end thinking. Metalysis has now found its place as a business in South Yorkshire.”
The patented production method involves running electricity through a bath of molten salt.
It can produce rare metals such as titanium faster, cheaper and greener than anything that has gone before.
But the true genius of the process is that it can be used to combine metallic elements in any proportion to form all new alloys which are described as ‘intelligent’ and can ‘remember’ how they were once folded.
With so many combinations, only computer power can work out which ones might be useful.
Mr Vaughan compares analysing the potential discoveries to the scale of the human genome project, which mapped all the genes in the body.
But already the car industry is very interested in ‘aluminium scandium’ an alloy that is light, strong and can be spot-welded, opening the door to its use in electric cars, where saving weight can hugely increase range.
“We have brought something novel and magical to the story of metallurgy, which has never previously been popular in investment terms.”
Here again, Metalysis is remarkable. It is backed by investors who have pumped in more than £80m over the last 17 years.
Only now is it turning the corner into a business dependent on customers.
Dr Vaughan started his career as a metallurgist at Forgemasters in Sheffield where testing new alloys was a manual process involving teams of people and took weeks.
To witness it being turned into an automated, computer-controlled process is a “very rare privilege.”
He added: “There are big challenges, but this is about creating important things for customers, shareholders, employees – and most importantly to create history.”
MADE IN SHEFFIELD LEADS THE WAY FROM THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION TO THE FOURTH
“I’ve spent most of my professional career in Sheffield and it is a fantastic place to do business. The Sheffield brand carries around the planet from China to Uzbekistan to the USA.”
So says Metalysis chief executive Dion Vaughan.
“There is a lot of lustre around the idea, there is more to Made in Sheffield than cutlery. We are very proud to be members.”
The brand was born out of the first industrial revolution. Today, Metalysis is hailed as a leading light of the fourth, which is based on 3D printing, big data and automation.
Its ‘impossible’ alloys could revolutionise industry, from cars to computing, and even pave the way for colonies in space.