When automobile manufacturers go shopping for steel, they want it to be lighter, tougher, and more malleable than ever before. To some people that may sound like a tall order, but not to Alison Mark. She's looking for ways to give the industry exactly what it wants
The Queen's University doctoral student is exploring the structural characteristics of TRIP (Transformation Induced Plasticity) steels, a special class of metals with unique properties such as improved workability, and the ability to retain high-temperature constituents even after they have cooled to room temperature. What makes them so attractive to the automobile industry? TRIP steels are especially useful in the stamping and forming processes used to create automobile components. The steels are also useful because they react well under stress-such as during a car crash. The materials absorb more of the crash energy than conventional steel, making them a good choice for passenger vehicles. These are exactly the properties that car companies are looking for in the materials they use in the manufacturing process
As appealing as these steels might be for manufacturing purposes, they can also be quite expensive-depending on the combination of alloying elements that are added to produce them. Alison's research is taking a close look at which alloys do what, and which formulations of TRIP steels could be the most cost effective for the performance they offer. "What makes a TRIP steel unique is the microstructure, which changes under stress and strain," she says. "There has been a lot of general work done on this, but no one has done a really focused study of what happens after the size and shape of the microstructure changes. That's where my work begins."
Alison's activities have already won her praise from members of AUTO21, a national Network of Centres of Excellence devoted to innovative automotive technologies. Her Queen's University thesis advisor, Metallurgy and Materials Engineering professor Doug Boyd, belongs to an AUTO21 research group that investigates the prospects for the next generation of steels for commercial use in vehicles. In fact, Boyd was the one who introduced Alison to some of the intriguing research challenges involving TRIP steels-one of several projects she considered when preparing for her Ph.D.
Even as an undergraduate student, Alison was interested in vehicle construction. Her interest was first sparked when she joined the Queen's Solar Vehicle Team. Since the late 1980s, the student organization has regularly designed and built solar-powered vehicles to compete in international competition against teams from universities and corporations around the world. In 1999, Alison was part of the Queen's team that took part in a competition that sees solar-powered vehicles race some 3,000 km through the heart of Australia's sunny outback. Her team came in second out of 43 teams from 14 countries. Their vehicle, called Radiance, also had the best performance of any university or North American team in the race. Later, when Radiance travelled more than 7,000 km across Canada, the vehicle was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest distance ever driven on solar power.
For her part, Alison found work on the solar car to be utterly engrossing and inspirational. As assistant to the systems co-ordinator on Queen's Solar Vehicle Team, she had an overview of the entire undertaking and gained immense respect for the calibre of people dedicated to the vehicle. She says it was especially rewarding to share the same goals with the talented and motivated individuals on the team "I got the opportunity to work with the best and brightest from across the disciplines. You can learn things from these people by watching the way they do things and by interacting with them."
What else did she learn? That she has an insatiable appetite for the freedom and fascination of a demanding research endeavour, which she continues to indulge in her work on TRIP steels. "I almost have it to a fault," she admits. "I want to know everything."