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Metal Profile: Titanium

What is titanium?

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Close up of workers hands holding crushed titanium
Monty Rakusen/Cultura/Getty Images
Metal Profile: Titanium

Titanium billets produced by VSMPO-AVISMA (Russia).

Image © VSMPO-AVISMA Corporation

Titanium is a strong and lightweight refractory metal. Alloys of titanium are critical to the aerospace industry but, due to their numerous unique properties, are also used in medical, chemical and military applications, as well as in sporting goods.

Properties:

  • Atomic Symbol: Ti
  • Atomic Number: 22
  • Element Category: Transition Metal
  • Density: 4.506/cm3
  • Melting Point: 3034°F (1668°C)
  • Boiling Point: 5949°F (3287°C)
  • Moh's Hardness: 6

Characteristics:

Alloys containing titanium are known for their high strength, light weight and exceptional corrosion resistance.

Despite being as strong as steel, titanium is about 40% lighter in weight, which, along with its resistance to cavitation and erosion, makes it an essential structural metal for aerospace engineers.

Titanium is also formidable in its resistance to corrosion by both water and chemical media. It does this by forming a thin layer of titanium dioxide (TiO2) on its surface that is extremely difficult for these materials to penetrate.

Having a low modulus of elasticity means that titanium is not also very flexible, but returns to its original shape after bending, resulting in its importance to shape memory alloys.

Titanium is non-magnetic and biocompatible (non-toxic, non-allergenic), which has led to its increasing use in the medical field.

History:

The use of titanium metal, in any form, only really developed after World War II. In fact, titanium was not isolated as a metal until the American chemist Matthew Hunter produced it by reducing titanium tetrachloride (TiCl4) with sodium in 1910; A method now known as the Hunter process.

Commercial production, however, did not come until after William Justin Kroll showed that titanium could also be reduced from chloride using magnesium in the 1930s. The Kroll process remains the most important commercial production method to this day.

After a cost-effective production method was developed, titanium's first major use was in military aircraft. Both Soviet and American military aircraft and submarines (e.g. Soviet Alfa and Mike Class submarines and the USAF F100 Super Sabre and Lockheed A-12) designed in the 1950s and 1960s began making use of titanium alloys. By the early 1960s, titanium alloys started to be used by commercial aircraft manufacturers as well.

The medical field, particularly dental implants and prosthetics, awoke to titanium's usefulness after Swedish doctor Per-Ingvar Brånemark's studies dating back to the 1950s showed that titanium triggers no negative immune response in humans, allowing the metal to integrate into our bodies in a process he termed osseointegration.

Production:

Although titanium is the fourth most common metal elements in the earth's crust (behind aluminum, iron and magnesium), production of titanium metal is extremely sensitive to contamination, particularly by oxygen, which accounts for its relatively recent development and high cost.

The main ores used in the primary production of titanium are ilmenite, which accounts for about 90% of production, and rutile, which accounts for the remaining 10%. About 6.3 million tonnes of titanium mineral concentrate was produced in 2010, although only a small fraction (about 5%) of titanium concentrate produced each year ultimately ends-up in titanium metal. Instead, most is used in the production of titanium dioxide (TiO2), a whitening pigment used in paints, foods, medicines and cosmetics.

In the first step of the Kroll process, titanium ore is crushed and heated with coking coal in a chlorine atmosphere to produce titanium tetrachloride (TiCl4). The chloride is then captured and sent through a condenser, which produces a titanium chloride liquid that is more 99% pure.

The titanium tetrachloride is then sent directly into vessels containing molten magnesium. In order to avoid oxygen contamination, this is made inert through the addition of argon gas.

During the consequent distillation process, which can take a number of days, the vessel is heated to 1832°F (1000°C). The magnesium reacts with the titanium chloride, stripping the chloride and producing elemental titanium and magnesium chloride.

The fibrous titanium that is produced as a result is referred to as titanium sponge. To produce titanium alloys and high purity titanium ingots, titanium sponge can be melted with various alloying elements using electron beam, plasma arc or vacuum-arc melting.

In the hope of reducing titanium's extraction costs, electrolytic and other processes for producing titanium metal continue to be actively researched.

Due to its strategic nature, statistics on titanium metal production can be difficult to come-by. However, it is estimated that total world titanium sponge production was about 150,000 tonnes in 2010. The largest producing countries are China, Japan, Russia, Kazakhstan and the United States. Large titanium sponge producers include VSMPO (Russia), Titanium Metals Corp. (USA), RTI Intl. (USA), Fushun Jinming Titanium Industry (China), Luoyang Sunrui Wayi Titanium Co. (China) and Osaka Titanium Technology Co. (Japan).

Applications:

Titanium metal alloys are primarily used in the following industries:

  • Aerospace
  • Military
  • Medical
  • Chemical
  • Sporting goods

Over the past few decades, aircraft manufacturers have increasingly turned to titanium as a key structural component. From its first uses in the early 1960s, the average titanium content in Boeing's commercial airlines has increased from about 2% of bodyweight to approximately 15%. More...

Sources:
TIMET Video: The Kroll Process. Available on the International Titanium Association website: http://www.titanium.org
The US Geological Survey: Titanium. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/titanium/
Vulcan, Tom. 2010. Titanium: The Metal of the Gods. Hardassetinvestor.com.

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