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Titanium Could Join Movement to Onshore Materials Production
Materials company will extract titanium from Tennessee sand deposit to cut U.S. reliance on offshore titanium sources and increase supply.
July 19, 2022
4 Min Read
The site of the mineral-rich sand deposits IperionX plans to extract titanium and other rare earth minerals from.Image courtesy of IperionX
Titanium has long been used as a high-strength, corrosion-resistant material for applications such as aerospace. The material is considered expensiveꟷpartially due to the fact that most of it is imported from offshore sources where titanium mineral deposits are located. As with other materials, supply-chain disruptions and geopolitical instability loom as potential hurdles to stable titanium supply.
To meet this challenge, IperionX, a U.S.-based material company, has embarked on an ambitious project to mine titanium and other rare earth minerals from earth-rich, heavy mineral sand deposits located in Camden, a region in western Tennesseee. The company has developed patented, low-cost technology to recover the minerals and build titanium parts through a U.S.-based production facility to be constructed.
“The titanium supply chain needs to be restored,” said Taso Arima, CEO of IperionX, in an interview with Design News. “We used to get titanium mostly from Japan, which is a high-cost producer. Other titanium sources include Russia and China, with the later accounting for nearly 70% of global supply.”
Arima added that while U.S. demand for titanium has not been particularly strong of late, the fact that regions such as Russia and China have the majority of the world’s titanium ore capacity has created concerns about titanium and rare earth metal supplies for defense, electronics, and other applications. Rare earth metals are used in high-performance permanent magnets, which are required for generators and electric motors of all types.
Arima is confident that the onshore titanium extraction and production can reduce costs by as much as 75% over current methods, once the sand deposit is operational. The less expensive titanium could open the door to new uses in automobiles, medical devices, and other applications where titanium was previously deemed too expensive.
U.S. titanium sources scant
By and large, the U.S. generally lacks the rich rare earth mineral deposits present in these regions, Arima noted. Moreover, known processes to extract titanium are akin to mining and could involve steps such as blasting. “It takes a lot of energy and produces a lot of waste,” he said.
The company, through the Titan Project, will extract titanium minerals from McNairy Sand, a mineral-rich sand deposit running north and south through western Tennessee. IperionX plans to use an environmentally-friendly, gravity and water process to extract minerals from the quartz sand, then a benign floatation process to extract titanium and other rare earth minerals.
“The gravity process is typically used for sand mining and involves no blasting or other environmental effect,” Arima told Design News. The Titan Project timeline expects construction on the Camden site to begin by the end of 2023.
In addition, IperionX is working with the University of Tennessee to make the Camden site environmentally sustainable, planting vegetation that will improve the site post-construction as well as the ecosystem surrounding it.
To prepare for increased onshore titanium processing, IperionX, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Advanced Research Programs Agency program, has developed technology to produce low-cost titanium from either titanium minerals or scrap titanium metal. The technology was invented by Dr. Zhigang Fang at the University of Utah and is an energy-efficient thermochemical process called HAMR (Hydrogen Assisted Metallothermic Reduction). The HAMR process uses conventional powder metallurgy processing steps to control the size of the particles, add alloying elements, without the high oxygen content and accompanying chlorination processes required by traditional titanium processing.
IperionX, through its partner Blacksand, has developed a pilot facility in Salt Lake City to build prototype parts from titanium scrap metal. The company is now developing a larger demonstration facility with a targeted production capacity of 125 tpa (tons per annum) to handle larger titanium part production.
According to Arima, the company is already in discussion with several governmental agencies on producing some titanium parts for defense-related applications.
Spencer Chin is a Senior Editor for Design News covering the electronics beat. He has many years of experience covering developments in components, semiconductors, subsystems, power, and other facets of electronics from both a business/supply-chain and technology perspective. He can be reached at [email protected].
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