The earth contains a lot of titanium - it’s the ninth most abundant element in the earth’s crust. By mass, there’s more titanium in the earth’s crust than carbon by a factor of nearly 30, and more titanium than copper by a factor of nearly 100. But despite its abundance, it's only recently that civilization has been able to use titanium as a metal (titanium dioxide has been in use somewhat longer as a paint pigment). Because titanium so readily bonds with oxygen and other elements, it doesn’t occur at all in metallic form in nature.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
thanks - another great article
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!
> 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.