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Boeing explores titanium powder

Sep 30, 2013 | 08:00 PM | Anna Andrianova

Tags  Boeing Co., titanium, titanium powder, Jessica Kowal, 787 dreamliner, South Africa, titanium ore, Willie du Preez Titanium Center of Competence

Boeing Co., one of the world’s largest airplane makers, is investing in titanium powder research to try to reduce the cost of making airplane parts.

Boeing and South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) started exchanging information on technical requirements and titanium powder production methods in 2007, said Jessica Kowal, a spokesman for Boeing. This summer Boeing signed a memorandum of understanding with the agency to research the use of titanium powder in industrial manufacturing.

“Because Boeing is the largest user of titanium in the world, we have a strong interest in increasing the overall supply of raw material and improving the efficiency of how titanium aerospace parts are manufactured,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes communications representative Jessica Kowal said in an e-mail, noting that 15 percent of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is titanium.

Boeing uses titanium in many airplane parts, including the landing gear, wing box, strut pylons, hydraulic systems, auxiliary power units and fasteners, she said. But Boeing does not currently use titanium powder-made parts in its commercial airplanes, Kowal said.

Titanium has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of all metals. It can withstand comparable loads better than aluminum and has minimal fatigue concerns, she said. As a lightweight metal, titanium makes planes lighter and cheaper to operate and, therefore, more desirable for airlines. But titanium parts are extremely difficult to make as the metal is very strong and has a high melting point. The new collaboration seeks to address how to convert titanium ore into powder, which is more efficient to work with.

“We want to reduce manufacturing waste, energy use and cost,” Kowal said. Boeing did not disclose how much it has invested in the South African research.

One of the largest producers of mined titanium ore, South Africa stimulated its technology innovation to convert titanium ore into powder about six years ago, said Willie du Preez, director of the Titanium Center of Competence at the CSIR. “The current process to make powder is very expensive, and what we are trying to do, and some other organizations as well, is to make powder itself much cheaper,” he said. “We are targeting to produce the powder at a cost which is more or less comparable to the process of producing (titanium) sponge.”

The common titanium production techniquesÑthe Kroll process and the Hunter processÑproduce a highly porous form of titanium called sponge, which can be converted to titanium ingot for use in structural products. The CSIR patented its own method to create titanium powder that cuts out several steps of the Kroll process, du Preez said, and potential buyers, like Boeing, are interested because it is cheaper to make final products from titanium powder than sponge.

“The advantage of working with titanium powder is that the utilization of the metal increases significantly,” said Dawie van Vuuren, Materials Science and Manufacturing unit research group leader at the CSIR.

South Africa is the second-largest producer of titanium in the world after Australia, van Vuuren said, but only 5 percent of the titanium extracted from ore goes to the metal industry while 95 percent goes to the titanium pigment industry. He estimated worldwide commercial titanium powder production at around 200 tons per year, but said the potential is enormous.

“There (are) not really enough titanium powder production facilities in the world that can produce powder relatively (cheaply),” du Preez said. Current titanium powder production methods are very expensive, which is why the market is very small and niche.

The South African government is interested in expanding the titanium metal industry because of its higher prices. It has invested around 250 million rand ($25 million) in the research in recent years, du Preez said. Commercial players, including Boeing and its main competitor, Airbus SAS, which has a similar agreement with the CSIR, have invested as well, but the research remains mainly a state-sponsored effort, he said.

Boeing and the CSIR do not share research labs, but the agency sends its powder and the parts created from it to Boeing, which tests them and provides feedback.

“The largest problem (with) titanium powder in the current situation is the acceptance of (it) in the industry,” du Preez said.

The titanium powder produced by South Africa is pure enough, van Vuuren said, “but there (is) more work to be done to have the final components qualified” for the aerospace industry. Boeing, in particular, has done a lot of work in the qualification process.

“The progress up to now has been very promising and we are moving forward with confidence, but it will take around 10 years before we are a strong producer of titanium powder in the market,” du Preez said.

The CSIR launched a pilot titanium powder production plant in June capable of producing about 2 kilograms per hour, but there are a lot of technical issues that had been resolved in principle in the lab that now must be resolved in practice, van Vuuren said. The CSIR plans to start small-scale commercial production in a few years with a possible capacity of 500 tons.

In the United States, ADMA Products Inc. has tested its own powder production process and is launching a pilot plant in Twinsburg, Ohio, with a production capacity of up to 200,000 pounds per year, and plans to set up a full-scale production plant in a few years.

ADMA worked with the scientists from the former Soviet Union and patented a new process to make titanium powder. In 2009 and 2010 ADMA received contracts from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop titanium powder production systems, for $1.4 million and $1.2 million.

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