Titanium production streamlined with ‘ground-breaking’ method
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UK military researchers have developed a new method for producing titanium, which reduces the current 40-stage process down to just two stages and could halve production costs.
Titanium, an element named after the Titans of Ancient Greek mythology, can be alloyed with various elements to produce strong and lightweight alloys, making them ideal for applications in jet engines, missiles, spacecraft and other military applications, among other sectors. Titanium has the highest strength-to-density ratio of any metallic element and is nearly as strong as some steels.
Typically, a 40-stage process is required to create titanium, rendering this valuable metal prohibitively expensive in many cases.
Now, researchers at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, based in Porton Down, Wiltshire, have developed a new, more efficient method for creating titanium in a study in collaboration with the University of Sheffield. The method, which has been named ‘FAST-forge’, allows near net-shape components to be manufactured from powder or particulate using just two steps.
Dr Nick Weston, the Sheffield academic who led the study, commented that “such components have mechanical properties equivalent to forged product.”
“For titanium alloys, FAST-forge will provide a step change in the cost of components, allowing use in automotive applications such as powertrain and suspension systems,” said Weston.
According to Gavin Williamson, who was appointed defence secretary in November 2017, titanium is used in a range of military applications, from nuclear submarine components to prosthetic limbs for veterans, “but production time and costs mean we haven’t always used it".
“This ground-breaking method is not only faster and cheaper, but could see a huge expansion of titanium parts and equipment throughout the military,” Williamson said. “It is a clear example of how our world-class scientists are working behind the scenes to help our Armed Forces as well as bringing prosperity and security to Britain.”
According to the Ministry of Defence, while titanium is nearly as strong as steel while being much lighter, it is more than 10 times as costly and difficult to manufacture.
Matthew Lunt, principal researcher for materials scientist at the Porton Down laboratory, suggests that this new method could cut the cost of manufacturing titanium by up to 50 per cent, meaning that titanium could be used in lightweight armoured vehicles or military submarines (where its resistance to corrosion could extend the lifetime of these expensive submarines).
Some small-scale trials have been conducted already and larger-scale testing is to be carried out at a new fast furnace facility. This furnace will allow for the forging of much larger titanium components.
The Porton Down military research facility played a crucial role in in identifying the deadly nerve agent, Novichok, used in the recent attempted assassination of defected Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal.