Titanium – a key metal in times of geopolitical risk

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station on the company’s Orbital Flight Test-2 mission before automatically docking to the Harmony module’s forward port (20 May 2022).

Recent events, such as Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have challenged the global supply chain and raised geopolitical tensions. Since titanium is used in aircraft, armaments, power generation and other important industries, it is vital for the security of the modern world. What are the stakes involved, what is being done to reduce risk, and why is titanium so sought after?

By James Chater

Outlook

The answer to the last question is primarily its strength-to-weight ratio plus its corrosion resistance. But before discussing how the noble metal is used, let us delve into how titanium production is being affected by current global conditions.

The “end of history” has been indefinitely postponed! The West is once again having to confront Russian aggression and contemplate what to do if China invades Taiwan. Yet it was only recently that the economies of the USA, Europe and its two rivals in the east were intertwined; to a great extent, they still are. Europe relied heavily on Russian oil and gas, and the USA depended on China for superconductors and Russia for titanium products. Supply chains were disrupted when Covid struck, and titanium’s main customer, the aircraft makers, went into a nosedive. The aerospace industry has revived, but since the start of the war in Ukraine, western manufacturers and end users have realised the perils of depending on Russia and China for commodities and energy.

Reshoring

IperionX’s Titan heavy minerals project in Tennessee.
IperionX’s Titan heavy minerals project in Tennessee.

Enter a new buzzword: “reshoring”. It is the opposite of globalisation, the interdependence of the world economies, that is now being challenged. It is increasingly felt that, in the current geopolitical climate, dependence on foreign or distant countries needs to be balanced by security considerations. The US government considers titanium one of many commodities vital for the country’s security. It therefore makes sense to exploit titanium resources nearer home. America’s answer to the Russian titanium giant VSMPO-Avisma could well be IperionX (founded in 2020 and originally called Hyperion Metals), a company that is building a fully integrated titanium and rare earth metal supply chain.

Its projects include a mine in the McNairy Sands, Camden, Tennessee; the Titan heavy minerals project in Tennessee; and the first 100% recycled titanium metal powder facility in Halifax County, South Virginia, a demonstration plant that will support 3D-printing (also known as additive manufacturing, or AM). IperionX is also the owner of low-carbon technology for both the manufacture and recycling of titanium products.

Their recycling process turns 100% titanium scrap into a powder form. This closed-loop process is not only more sustainable but cheaper than traditional methods. What’s more, the company’s HAMR (Hydrogen Assisted Metallothermic Reduction) technology surpasses the traditional, energy-intense Kroll process in efficiency, by turning ilmenite into spherical titanium powder alloy Ti64. IperionX has built a demonstration facility for recycling and is at work on a larger facility; it is also collaborating with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop lower-cost metal powders. The scaling-up process will help the US become self-sufficient.

3D-printing

Apart from IperionX, several companies are branching into titanium powders for AM (additive manufacturing), including Sweden’s Höganäs and Australia’s Amaero. Crucial to investment in titanium is innovation in 3D-printing. One example of this is cold-spray 3D-printing technology, considered to be a good option for making large parts. The process replaces powder melting with plastic deformation, and is especially effective for Ti6Al4V, a very reactive material.

Panerai watch cases 3D-printed using IperionX’s low carbon, 100% recycled titanium powders. Photo: IperionX.
Panerai watch cases 3D-printed using IperionX’s low carbon, 100% recycled titanium powders. Photo: IperionX.

Impact Innovations demonstrated this technology by building – in two hours – a Ti6Al4V turbojet aircraft engine fan shaft measuring 380mm long with a diameter of 223mm at its widest point.

3D-printing is a technology largely driven by the aerospace industry. Companies that manufacture titanium for aircraft manufacture include Norsk Titanium, which is expanding its collaboration with Airbus; Midhani, which has announced it will start 3D-printing of aircraft parts in nickel- and titanium-based alloy powders; and GKN Aerospace, which collaborated with Northrop Grumman to 3D-print a titanium aerostructure component measuring about 2.5 metres – reportedly the largest AM aerostructure produced by GKN.

Aerospace

The two Ariane 6 variants planned, A62 (left) and A64 (right).
The two Ariane 6 variants planned, A62 (left) and A64 (right).

Aerospace is still the major consumer of titanium metals and the one where titanium consumption is growing fastest. The industry has shrugged off Covid and, if Boeing’s analysis is correct, could be looking forward to a delivery rate increase of 80% between 2019 and 2041 (1). All is not rosy, however, as Boeing’s 737 MAX and 787 have encountered production delays. The 737 MAX was grounded because of faults in the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software, which caused two fatal crashes. Following retrofits, the US authorities recertified the planes. Deliveries of the 787 were halted between May 2021 and July 2022 because of safety and quality concerns. For example, in 2021 it was found that faulty titanium spacers, brackets and clips used in the carbon-composite airframe needed to be replaced; now it faces supply chain delays.

Two newcomers to the widebody fleet are two freighters, the Airbus 350F, announced in November 2021, and the Boeing 777XF, announced in January 2022. Both have been developed from passenger planes. Narrow-body planes include the Airbus A321XLR, which achieved first flight in June 2022. The aircraft extends the range to the highest of any narrow-body – up of 8,700 km. It is expected to enter service in 2024. Last December saw the first delivery of the COMAC C818, a landmark event for China, as the first large Chinese-made passenger aircraft to be built in accordance with international standards and owning independent intellectual property rights.

Spacecraft, like civil aircraft, have been encountering technical problems. NASA has been involved with two projects. The first is the Boeing CST-100[a] Starliner, a capsule that is reusable and can land on land. Designed to transport crew to the International Space Station (ISS) and other low-Earth-orbit, it finally reached its destination on 20 May 2022, more than two years after its first launch (2019) did not go according to plan. The second project, also bound for the ISS, is Endeavor, carrying four astronauts (SpaceX Crew-6) and propelled by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. It launched successfully on 2 March 2023 after a failed attempt on 27 February. In Europe, the Ariane 6 expendable launch system is intended to replace Ariane 5 at a lower cost and to increase launch capacity. It is designed with two core stages both powered by liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen (hydrolox) engines.

Military

International tensions are triggering an increase in military expenditure. This is why IperionX is working with the Air Force Research Laboratory to produce titanium powders to 3D-print parts for military aircraft. It is likely that titanium’s light weight and strength will come into its own with new military applications.

Allegheny Technology supplied the titanium for the Triton 36000/2 submersible, made by Triton Submarines. Photo: © Atlantic Productions.
Allegheny Technology supplied the titanium for the Triton 36000/2 submersible, made by Triton Submarines. Photo: © Atlantic Productions.

For instance, a nickel-titanium “memory-shape” alloy called Nitinol is being proposed for the coating of body armour, to increase puncture resistance. IperionX has partnered with Carver Pump to offer 3D-printed titanium centrifugal pump components for the US navy. The pumps are used for fire suppression, seawater cooling, radar and electronics cooling, main propulsion seawater, bilge and desalination. The importance of titanium in marine service is further underlined by the Triton 36000/2 submersible, made of grade 5 ((Ti 6Al 4V) titanium ingot supplied by Allegheny Technology.

Power generation

Nuclear power is controversial because of safety issues (especially now there’s a war on!), expense and long lead times, with delays and cost over-runs. This has not prevented 11 European countries from forming an alliance to embark on new projects, while Germany has delayed the planned phasing out of its reactors.

Neste is collaborating with Airbus and Boeing to develop SAF (sustainable aviation fuel).
Neste is collaborating with Airbus and Boeing to develop SAF (sustainable aviation fuel).

Titanium is used in heat-exchanger tubes and condensers, and here too AM is helping to revolutionise the way titanium and other special metals are used. Sandia National Laboratories has proposed a new, 3D-printed alloy (42% aluminium, 25% titanium, 13% niobium, 8% zirconium, 8% molybdenum and 4% tantalum) capable of withstanding 800ºC, for use in turbine parts.

Semiconducting

Owing to the already mentioned security concerns, semiconductor manufacture is on the increase in the west, especially the USA. This is why this market is attracting the attention of titanium makers such as Norsk Titanium.

Conclusion

Lower titanium costs brought about by more sustainable processes such as HAMR and AM are cascading through multiple industries (we could also have added architecture, recreation, jewelry & personal accessories and desalination), lowering costs and carbon footprint. Even as supply chains have been challenged, titanium looks as essential as ever.

Sustainable fuels

Many airliner companies are pioneering non-fossil alternatives to kerosine. Airbus and Safran are jointly building the first liquid hydrogen refuelling facility for ZEROe aircraft at Toulouse, Blagnac airport. Neste, a renewable fuel producer, has collaborations with Airbus and Boeing to develop SAF (sustainable aviation fuel). Airbus and CERN are developing superconducting technologies in airborne electrical systems. Airbus, which hopes to have zero-emission aircraft in the air by 2035, is developing a hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine.  

Did you know?

– In 2022, Russia and China accounted for 70% of titanium sponge production.
– 3D printing is being touted as a convenient way to manufacture parts in remote locations. Nowhere could be more remote than Mars, and at Washington State University, researchers are mixing simulated Martian rock (regolith-ceramic) with titanium alloy to make parts using a powder-based 3D printer. The result is a material that is stronger than the Ti alloy alone.
– If titanium is in short supply on earth, there is always Exoplanet WASP-19b, whose atmosphere contains titanium oxide! It is 870.8 lightyears away.

About this Featured Story

This Featured Story appeared in Stainless Steel World May 2023 magazine. To read many more articles like these on an (almost) monthly basis, subscribe to our magazine (available in print and digital format – SUBSCRIPTIONS TO OUR DIGITAL VERSION ARE NOW FREE.

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