Supply and cost constraints may slow down use of titanium as an engineering material outside of aircraft even though interest is skyrocketing in the high-strength, lightweight metal. One issue is that more than half of world production capacity is located in Russia or China. Another is that projected use of titanium is projected to grow dramatically. The Boeing Dreamliner, for example, is 15 percent titanium. Slower-than-expected output of titanium fasteners threaten to slow the first flight of the Dreamliner.
Three strategies are being used to mitigate worsening supply problems.
Major users such as Boeing and Rolls Royce are entering long-term supply arrangements.
The U.S. Department of Defense is spending more than $20 million to support research projects aimed at increasing domestic supplies of titanium and reducing the price to less than $4 a pound. Some grades of titanium sell as much as ten times higher than that now.
Some engineers are investigating potential substitutes, such as Carpenter Technology’s Custom 465, a martensitic alloy capable of ultimate tensile strength in excess of 250 ksi in the overaged condition. The material may find wider use as a replacement for titanium in aircraft landing gear.
One of the promising research projects funded by the U.S. Department of Defense is an effort to develop an inexpensive and energy-efficient new process for making titanium metal powder. Using forming processes, the powder can be used to create strong, lightweight items ranging from armor plating to components for the aerospace, transportation and chemical processing industries.
Exploring the concept is a consortium that includes DuPont, which will supply the titanium dioxide as raw material, and Tucson, AZ-based MER Corp., which, will provide the core technology.”DuPont is the world's largest producer of titanium dioxide pigment, and we see tremendous opportunities to develop new titanium-related technologies to help us expand beyond our historical core business," said Richard Olson, vice president and general manager, DuPont Titanium Technologies. "But beyond the business significance, it's gratifying to know that projects like this can contribute to our nation's security and improve energy performance."
It is hoped the process will use less than half of the energy to convert titanium ore to titanium metal compared to the current 50-year-old process. In addition, the new process makes titanium metal powder that can be directly formed into desired shapes. It also allows manufacturers to make parts faster, with less machining and significantly less scrap.
The existing commercial process for producing titanium requires minerals to be extracted from beach sands through a weight separation process. The sand is then processed with chemicals such as chlorine and carbon to produce titanium sponge. The sponge is subsequently melted into ingots. The DuPont/MER process, as well as others being studied, reduces the number of steps.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) wants to reduce the price of titanium in its billet from to less than $4 a pound. Right now, titanium costs more than four times as much as basic steel.
Other strategies are also being pursued to reduce dependence on titanium. For example, Carpenter Technology of Reading, PA, hopes new grades of specialty metals such as grade Custom 465, can be used to replace titanium in aircraft landing gears.