20 Comments

Great article! I was sorry you didn't mention the Soviet titanium programme, though - according to https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP86T00591R000200170005-0.pdf, by 1984 the Soviet Union was producing five times as much titanium as the USA, and was the only country to use titanium extensively in the production of submarines. They used titanium in ways that made no economic sense - after the fall of Communism, Western mountaineers sometimes funded expeditions to the former USSR by buying cheap titanium ice screws in-country and selling them at huge markups on their return.

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I came to say this. The Soviets were far ahead on welding titanium and very large applications.

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Second this

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So essentially by just stealing one soviet submarine, by americans, meant to triple production of titanium for that year in US lol.

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“Titanium metal was essentially willed into existence by the US government”

The entire modern world was willed into existence by the US government, lol.

Telecommunications, semiconductors, nuclear power, metallurgy, petrochemistry, modern agriculture and ecology, genetics, fiber composites, plastics, , mass production and modern logistics.

Basically, after WWII, the Germans birthed modern machine tooling and CNC processes, the Japanese modern shipbuilding and manufacturing/logistics process integration, and the US basically everything else. And almost all of it was a spin-off from defense and government usage, just as the chronograph stemmed from British government prizes all the way back when.

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Living in a country that constantly gives away free stuff and wages endless wars might not be desirable. Maybe we should give peace and capitalism a chance. We might like it!

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Meh, I'll pass.

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Awesome history and should be required reading for those in the critical minerals/materials world or trying to dabble in industrial policy - especially since this make the importance of the “factory learning” and iterative process improvements beyond the lab very clear… something that is lost in many of the “why not just building new battery tech at scale” discussions, for example.

Titanium doesn’t seem to have had many breakthroughs since those Cold War efforts, but there are some exciting prospects around 3D printing, powder metallurgy, and a newer process (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_assisted_magnesiothermic_reduction) that apparently came out of of ARPA-E. Speculative but if it drops costs and addresses carbon intensity of the Kroll process, this would alter the cost/benefit calculation for Ti use and reliance on Russian production.

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Aluminium alloys that use small amounts of scandium are as strong and light as titanium. Those alloys might replace titanium someday.

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Battery problem is not what you stated, biggest problem for batteries, solar panels, everything else for that matter, is not having enough people to do research on it, there are multiple orders of magnitude more problems to solve then were in 1950s and for example capital is million times cheaper in some industries. just imagine all those programmers not programming but making research/'factory learning' on energy stuff... But you need "wealthy" programmers to buy solar panels and titanium airplanes / implants to fund it.

Imagine finding chlorates on Moon, you can make titanium in vacuum all day :P

BTW HAMR needs purification of ore first. Which is not stated, only implied and that can lead to confusion on cost / performance ratios.

Hydrogen reduction is overall useful technology even in other metal processes, for example you can have zero emission aluminium / steel

AND

this process can function as a kind of overnight energy storage by combining those two processes, which can make production of titanium/AL/steel absolutely 'off-grid' energy wise in southern part of US... Why no one does this ?

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very interesting and USEFUL article. I really would like to see similar articles for other metals/alloys and compound materials. Well done! I have shared this post with multiple colleagues.

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What a fascinating material: highly reactive but able to resist corrosion. I'm guessing this has to do with what it's reacting with and what's trying to corrode it. Metallurgy is full of weird stuff, like iron, a material that dissolves carbon and hydrogen and probably other things.

This article gives some context for Apple's TiBook, a Macintosh laptop produced in the early 2000s. It was Apple's first metal case laptop and possibly a first for the industry. I had one. The case was nice and light but a bit flexible. Shortly afterwards, Apple shifted to milled aluminum cases and others in the industry followed. Aluminum is a lot cheaper and easier to work with, so it's no surprise Apple dropped titanium, but there's probably more to the story.

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> What a fascinating material: highly reactive but able to resist corrosion. I'm guessing this has to do with what it's reacting with and what's trying to corrode it.

Like aluminium, when exposed to air titanium instantly forms a thin invisible oxide layer on the outside that seals the metal and resists further corrosion.

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It’s rumored the iPhone 15 will replace aluminum with titanium

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A bit more niche, but "The Rickover Effect" briefly mentions how Hyman Rickover's group at AEC essentially willed Zirconium production into existence in industry, going from a shoebox worth of high-purity Zirconium in existence to thousands of tons of production per year at $5/lb in just 4 years. Would be cool to see that history told as well!

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It would be interesting to look at the link between DuPont's development of TiCl4 for sponge and the first pure silicon which is the technology base for today's IT industry.

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Meh... there's never been a guv program that wouldn't have produced the desired results if only it had received more funding. As a metal worker there are no large gaps in material choices (steel, stainless, aluminum, copper, brass) that make a ten X cost material seem in any way appealing- even if the cost were halved. Even in extreme weight to strength use cases like mountaineering I've found better choices in composites, aluminum, etc.

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> Even in extreme weight to strength use cases like mountaineering I've found better choices in composites, aluminum, etc.

I'd be interested to hear more about your work on this! I once climbed with an ex-Soviet titanium ice screw, and while it lacked some features present on modern Western screws I remember it being wonderfully light and robust. I agree that there wouldn't be much of a market at 10x the cost of steel gear, but I'm sure you could find people willing to pay 2-3x to shave 40% off the weight of their racks - rich guided Everest climbers spring to mind. I see there are a couple of manufacturers still making titanium climbing gear, it appears mostly in Russia - see e.g. https://www.outdoorgearlab.com/reviews/snow-sports/ice-axe/ushba-altai-titanium

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Jul 7, 2023·edited Jul 7, 2023

> As late as 1945, there was no commercial production of titanium, and the metal only existed in tiny amounts in labs.

> as early as 1944 the Bureau of Mines was making 15-pound batches of titanium in a plant that could make 100 pounds of titanium a week.

This seems like a contradiction. I guess a few hundred or thousand pounds is still "tiny" compared to what was needed for later industry, but it still reads oddly.

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thanks - another great article

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