Titanium may be one of the most abundant materials on Earth, but the costly way it is turned into a usable material, both in terms of energy and time, makes it too expensive to be used as an everyday resource.
Now a British company has found a way to make titanium that does not cost the Earth, with a process that uses less than half the energy and a fraction of the time, and it sees aerospace as a primary driver for taking the technology forward.
At the moment, titanium is produced using the Kroll method, in which titanium tetrachloride is reduced with liquid magnesium in a process that is highly energy-intensive, and can take weeks before yielding usable results.
Aerospace is a major user of titanium. Engineers prize the material for its strength, low corrosion and relatively low density, but also for how it can be used in conjunction with composite materials. However, because of its high price tag—roughly six times that of steel—it is used sparingly in all but high-performance aircraft and even then mainly in critical areas such as the structures or in and around the engine.
But lowering the cost could help the metal find its way into other areas.
Rotherham, England-based Metalysis has a vision that its scalable electrochemical production process, developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge, could find its way into the factories of the future. Its reactors are capable of transforming titanium oxide into titanium using a form of electrolysis in liquid calcium chloride and can produce ingots of the metal or—more usefully, Metalysis believes—metal powder that can then be used in additive-manufacturing processes.
The company has demonstrated the process by producing 20-30 tons of powder and is now building a modular factory that it plans to use as a showcase for the technology. The new facility is due to open next spring.
The same electrochemical processes can be used to produce other metals or alloys. And Metalysis has already defined recipes for titanium and a rarer, denser material, tantalum, that could find a role in spacecraft as a material for shielding. It is also researching the processes required for 10-20 other materials.
“This is a new era for metallurgy,” says Metalysis CEO Dion Vaughan. “New materials will help define that next leap in aerospace,” he says, noting that research into new and exotic materials has not been so fast-paced since the beginning of the Cold War.
Vaughan notes recent significant acquisitions of additive-manufacturing companies by aerospace firms., for example, recently purchased two Europe-based additive-manufacturing firms, Arcam AB and SLM Solutions Group, for $1.4 billion. Both businesses will report to GE’s Aviation division.
Intelligence. Analysis. Insight.
This story is a selection from the October 17, 2016 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology. New content posted daily online.
Vaughan says such acquisitions reflect a vision for the future in which he wants to play a part, with Metalysis providing or leasing its reactors to be used on an on-demand basis, perhaps producing titanium one day, another alloy the next. The reactors can also be used to regrade the titanium powders, which over time suffer from oxidization, making them unsuitable for manufacturing. By regrading them, manufacturers could save a small fortune in maximizing their supplies.
Metalysis itself is already working with GKN andthrough UK government innovation projects. The three-year, £3.1 million ($3.8 million) TiPOW (Titanium Powder for net-shape component manufacture) program with GKN has been developing the techniques and equipment that will produce powders formulated and blended for aerospace components. Metalysis’s work with Safran is related to materials for aircraft landing gear.
But this is not just about high-performance materials, Vaughan insists. “Titanium could be used more widely just in the cabin environment,” he says.
Titanium cabin fittings and even seatbelt buckles, he says, are low-hanging fruit for aerospace weight reduction, without getting into the costly process of certifying materials for engines.