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Titanium
Thursday | 17 December, 2015 | 11:24 am

Remember the Titans

Written by By Lynn Stanley

Above: The first production car with an equal power-to-weight ratio, Koenigsegg’s One:1 has a 3-D printed titanium exhaust tip. Photo: Koenigsegg Automotive AB

Namesake of the Greek gods, technology advances may finally put the power of titanium into the hands of the masses at an affordable price

December 2015 - In a drastic step to lightweight automotive parts, Ängelholm, Sweden-based Koenigsegg Automotive AB saved 400 grams by 3-D printing an exhaust tip out of titanium for its One:1. The model made history in 2014 as the first production vehicle with a balanced strength- to-weight ratio, the “dream equation” that boasts 1 horsepower per 1 kilogram of curb weight. Koenigsegg claims the exhaust tip is the largest titanium piece that has ever been printed.

Strong as steel yet half the weight, some experts say that No. 22 on the periodic table–despite its reputation for super powers—remains a largely untapped reservoir of possibilities due to the high cost to refine and process. That may be about to change. Scientists at Metalysis are working to commercialize a disruptive technology that uses electrolysis to produce the material. This would replace the established Kroll method, which employs a multi-stage chlorine-based  process. If Metalysis can close the gap between the lab and commercial scale production, titanium will become a prime material for 3-D printing, which is making inroads with jet-engine parts and medical device applications. The ISO 90001-certified company’s process also has the potential to make titanium cost-competitive with aluminum in large-scale part runs for passenger cars and trucks.

Federal funding

More than 900 delegates gathered at the Titanium 2015 Conference in October to listen to panel discussions featuring industry leaders from executives and material engineers to stake holders, scientists and end users. Sessions delved into supply and demand, technology trends, raw material and scrap processing methods.

Government-sponsored research programs also drew attention. James Klausner, program director for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), talked about “innovating the future of titanium production” with particular focus on transportation and stationary energy initiatives. Use of titanium, aluminum and magnesium to lightweight vehicles; titanium powder research projects; and work in metals recycling topped the list.

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The titanium exhaust tip for Koenigsegg Automotive AB’s One:1 vehicle. Photo: Koenigsegg Automotive AB

ARPA-E aggressively seeks out high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are yet undeveloped and therefore not candidates for private-sector investment. The agency invests in nearly 380 energy technologies to support research that its own leaders believe has the potential to radically improve the U.S. economy, national security and the environment.

Klausner expects global demand for aluminum, magnesium and titanium to double by 2025 and says vehicle lightweighting is sparking that trend. He highlighted several projects including ARPA-E award recipient Case Western Reserve University. The Cleveland school is working on an electrowinning process to design diaphragm thickness and quantity capable of eliminating bipolarity–a major stumbling block in energy efficient titanium electrowinning. Electrowinning recovers metal from liquid by passing a current through the solution. 

Another ARPA-E project leader, Dr. Stephen Fox of Titanium Metals Corp. (Timet), is working to produce clean titanium. His approach promises to use domestic ores and eliminate the Kroll process. Fox’s team instead employs a carbothermic reaction to produce oxycarbide. The next step uses controlled chlorination to obtain dichloride followed by electrowinning to recover a titanium-salt mixture and then classification/distillation to retrieve the titanium. The process would sequester carbon dioxide, reduce the carbon footprint, power consumption and electricity costs, among other benefits.

Scalable feedstock

The agency’s investment in recycling technologies includes UHV Technologies Inc.’s XRF scrap metal sorting machine; the University of Utah’s variable frequency electrodynamic sorting machine which claims the highest frequency industry electrodynamic sorter; ERCo’s laser induced breakdown spectroscopy; and Palo Alto Research Center’s electrochemical sorting of light metal alloys, which is said to detect these types of metals using electrochemistry for the first time.

SRI, an independent, nonprofit corporation founded by Stanford University, is also making progress with the development of fluidized bed processes for metal alloys and composites. The project is supported by ARPA-E and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. SRI scientist Jordi Perez says applications include infiltration/deposition of metals like aluminum and vanadium on titanium sponge. 

The technologies being studied and tested offer the potential to ramp up scalable production of feedstock for 3-D printing, laser sintering and powder metallurgy. Materials produced by these processes are expected to offer better mechanical properties at high temperatures and new, lightweight, high-strength alloys and composites.

Until now powder metallurgy using titanium has been limited due to the high cost of producing feedstock particulate material. SRI’s work has also resulted in the development of a multi-arc fluidized bed reactor  that supports the simultaneous reduction of metal chlorides to produce titanium alloy granules in a single step. With ARPA-E funding SRI has built a proof of concept system and conducted a techno-economic analysis. The process has the potential to reduce cost, energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions associated with titanium alloy production. The ability to produce titanium alloys that can compete on a cost basis with stainless steel could generate greater economies of scale for lightweight vehicles—a step toward helping reduce the need for foreign fossil fuel. The process also has the potential to produce new titanium alloys not yet possible with conventional technology.

The progress in production processes that can lower costs and help manufacturers harness the performance advantages of titanium on a broader scale is good news for a number of consuming industries.

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MAFBR in operation with titanium alloy particles. SRI International’s one-step direct production process could lower cost and CO2 emissions. Photo: SRI International

Titanium 2015 presenter Wade Leach, senior vice-president-commercial for Allegheny Technologies Inc., says the number of titanium-intensive jets slated for production, moderate fuel costs and projected passenger miles makes the commercial aerospace market promising for titanium. Despite uncertainties surrounding economic growth, civil war and violent extremism, global airline profitability rose significantly in 2015, according to Leach.

Harry Seiner, vice president-business strategy for Timet, notes that titanium continues to dominate in jet engine applications like fan blades, but that its market position is being challenged by composites and aluminum alloys. However, progress with titanium aluminides in the combustion section of turbofan jets may offer an alternative to nickel-based superalloys.

Cutting costs

Legacy programs and new projects for fixed-wing and rotary-wing military aircraft point to a growing demand for military hardware near term, notes Eric Roegner, president of Alcoa and COO of Alcoa Titanium & Engineered Products. 

Roegner underlines the need for supply chains to reduce costs and improve efficiencies—a theme echoed throughout the conference.

“We need to take cost out of the supply chain and improve performance. There has to be innovation across the supply chain,” he says. Like others, Roegner cites development of titanium aluminides, progress in additive manufacturing and unique bonding, welding and joining techniques as examples of potential cost containment strategies.

A roundtable discussion on distribution trends revealed U.S. service centers have put inventory and business plans on pause in anticipation of a three-year “sweet spot” they expect will emerge during 2016. The pause is partially due to lukewarm business conditions in the industrial and oil and gas sectors. Panelists anticipate that, along with the ramp-up for titanium-hungry commercial jet platforms in 2016, these markets will also begin to improve.

On a global scale, George Hays, director general of New York-based World Corrosion Organization, urged the titanium industry to take on a bigger role in helping to solve the corrosion challenges in industrial, infrastructure and municipal applications. Corrosion control and repair costs represent 3.3 percent of the United States’ annual gross domestic product, or more than $300 billion.

The world’s energy challenges will continue to escalate. Regis Conrad, who directs the Advanced Energy Systems Division of the U.S. Office of Fossil Energy, says the federal government’s Materials Research Program is focusing resources on future energy systems; development of novel materials for high-temperature applications; next-generation high-strength materials with improved oxidation resistance; advanced coatings for metals; and computational materials design and lifetime prediction for extreme environments. MM

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