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New Technology Produces Cheaper Tantalum and Titanium 139

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the cheap-thinkpads-for-all dept.
Billy the Mountain writes "A small UK company is bringing new technology online that could reduce the prices of tantalum and titanium ten-fold. According to this piece in The Economist: A tantalising prospect, the key is a technique similar to smelting aluminum with a new twist: The metallic oxides are not melted as with aluminum but blended in powder form with a molten salt that serves as a medium and electrolyte. This technology is known as the FFC Cambridge Process. Other metals include Neodymium, Tungsten, and Vanadium."
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New Technology Produces Cheaper Tantalum and Titanium

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  • "A small UK company is bringing new technology online that could reduce the prices of tantalum and titanium ten-fold."

    Online... Will it make the tantalum and titanium down-loadable also?

    • by oldhack (1037484)

      haha. "Bring it online" is a common management-speak from the "quaint" old days. :)

      This is a post that I would have expected from slashdot back in her good old days. I hope there still are some here that are in the know, and chime in with their thoughts.

      Thumbs up, lamer.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Aluminum is mostly made by Rio , and uses subsidized electricity from anyone who wants jobs and a smelter, and heaps of sodium hydroxide - a salt that also 'costs' to produce. Anyone who discovers a way of saving energy inputs will be well rewarded.
        Magnesium. like aluminum is basically solidified electricity, so the process sounds good - until the other energy is factored in.
        BTW Alum smelters have stirrers that add pressure to the equation - chemists have done their homework, and using aluminum to make alum

    • by tehcyder (746570)

      "A small UK company is bringing new technology online that could reduce the prices of tantalum and titanium ten-fold."

      Online... Will it make the tantalum and titanium down-loadable also?

      Yeah, you'll just have to download it to your 3D printer, and you print out as much as you want. Tantalum wants to be free.

  • Slowpoke (Score:1, Flamebait)

    From Wikipedia: [wikipedia.org]

    The FFC Cambridge process was developed by George Z. Chen, Derek J. Fray and Tom W. Farthing between 1996 and 1997 in the University of Cambridge.

    I realize /. is a little behind the times, but 17 years behind?

    Are we going to have stories about Wright brother's magical flying machines next?

  • is not the manufacturing. it's "working" it.

    • by jbeaupre (752124) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @03:51AM (#43012395)

      I work with titanium. Buying 500 kg this week. It's not that bad. I'd use more of it if it were cheaper.

      You want to talk hard to work with, try gamma titanium aluminide. Blah! And I'm sure there is far worse stuff. Plutonium?

      • by a_hanso (1891616) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @04:09AM (#43012473) Journal

        You want to talk hard to work with, try gamma titanium aluminide.

        I think gamma titanium aluminide is managing my project.

      • by tehcyder (746570) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @05:54AM (#43012739) Journal
        I think if you were ordering 500kg of plutonium you would just have made the scariest post ever on slashdot.
        • by ch0rlt0n (1515291) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @07:40AM (#43013063)

          Face it, there's probably enough keywords there to have triggered alarm bells at the NSA anyway.

        • by tragedy (27079)

          Depends on what isotope really. If it were Plutonium 238, there wouldn't be much to be afraid of. It would produce 122 kilowatts of heat, so storage would be an issue. You'd want to store it in lots of separate containers in a large, cooled space, or even outdoors. You would also need radiation shielding, but only a tiny amount of it. It's also toxic if consumed, but so are lots of things.

          So, not necessarily all that scary.

        • by RockDoctor (15477)
          I make a back of the envelope calculation that there were several million kilos of plutonium in the Earth a century ago, and regardless of what we do in the next few centuries, there will still be several million kilos of the stuff in the Earth in, say, 2500.

          Of course, it's diluted by several billion billion times as much other non-threatening material.

      • Are you making fan blades for a jet engine? Why is gamma titanium aluminide hard to work with?

        • by jbeaupre (752124) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @07:58AM (#43013145)

          I've only used it for prototypes, but nothing aerospace. Which means either very expensive custom tooling for die casting or machining. And it won't quite machine like metal. Grinding works, but that's slow for complex shapes.

          It's not impossible to work with, just weird. Vibrates and makes the strangest sounds while machining.

          Now that I think about it, boralyn was worse. Tore up machine tools and gummed up grinding tools. You can cast, forge, and weld the stuff. But none of the parts I work with are amenable to those processes.

          • by morethanapapercert (749527) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @09:06AM (#43013585)
            I once posted elsewhere about what *I* think would be great subjects for video.slashdot.org, behind the scenes at the computer room of a major observatory for example. I think getting a video tour of your shop might be equally fascinating. Exotic boron and/or titantium alloys and it's not an aerospace application? I'm guessing racing bicycles or Formula 1 fabrication work. Either way, I'd love to see an interview where you discuss what it's like working with these unusual materials.
            • by jbeaupre (752124)

              I'm not sure how interesting it'd be as a video. I don't do much machining in my shop. There are some amazing people and shops out there and I value their expertise. All I could do is show my lab in the US and ramble about different projects.

              Still, I get to play with some fun stuff. I use exotic stuff because I design medical devices. Little tiny mechanisms with tight performance requirements. 95% of the time exotic materials don't help, but it's worth testing them. I've researched gold for one appli

              • there might not be much activity per se during a behind the scenes shop tour of your operation, but i can think of several things you could share with us nerds that we'd probably find interesting.:

                1) how you generate the requirements for a medical device, the brainstorming period before you start actually working on materials 2) How you test a material for a particular application, why cobalt alloys might be used for a particular implant rather than titanium or surgical stainless steel. 3) Your projects a

      • by necro81 (917438)

        And I'm sure there is far worse stuff. Plutonium?

        Meh, from what I hear plutonium isn't all that hard to work. It machines well enough (the bomb industry can machine it into interesting revolved ellipsoids to fit into MIRV warheads). It is usually found and used as a pure metal. Pure metals tend to be pretty soft and ductile - it is only once you start alloying things that they gain their mechanically useful properties. The main downside is that you can't work it in the open air: the chips will burn, a

      • Most people, even on slashdot, don’t realize the huge potential of titanium.

        It's not only a better metal, it's perfect. In fact, if you mixed together aluminum and stainless steel together and tap the result with a magic wand to remove all its flaw (Resistance to corrosion, acid, rust etc.), you'll get titanium.

        Its light as aluminum, strong as steel, completely resistant to corrosion and quite abundant (given, it's not as abundant as iron and aluminum, but it's not that far either. You'll be surprised

        • by slinches (1540051) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @11:14AM (#43014995)

          Titanium is a very good material, but it isn't perfect. The fatigue capability is relatively low for its strength, especially in cast form. Strength at temperature is good, but far short of nickel based superalloys that are similar in cost. Low ductility and elastic modulus means it isn't easily formable and makes machining more difficult. It has limited resistance to wear due to lower hardenability. Oh, and it can catch on fire under the right conditions.

          Although, for many aerospace applications there's no substitute at almost any cost. It allows the weight of parts, that would otherwise need to be made of steel or nickel alloys, to be cut nearly in half (and that adds up quickly since it applies to a large portion of the main structural components in things like jet engines).

          If the price does drop drastically, I'd expect to start seeing Ti show up a lot more in areas like the automotive industry, where weight is important but it's use had been limited by cost.

          • by Eloking (877834)
            I'll double-check this, but as far as I know all those flaw can be greatly reduced (if not eleminated) in some Ti alloy.
            • by slinches (1540051)

              I'm an aerospace engineer, so I have had a bit of experience with various metal alloys, but I'm no metallurgist.

              I know there are several other Ti alloys available, but there are only three that seem to be widely used. CP Ti (unalloyed, grades 1-4), Ti 6-4 and Ti 6-2-4-2

              There are some significant differences between these in strength and temperature capability, but nothing like the range of steel and nickel alloys that are available. Steel can range from barely better than aluminum in tensile strength to o

          • Although, for many aerospace applications there's no substitute at almost any cost. It allows the weight of parts, that would otherwise need to be made of steel or nickel alloys, to be cut nearly in half (and that adds up quickly since it applies to a large portion of the main structural components in things like jet engines).

            If the price does drop drastically, I'd expect to start seeing Ti show up a lot more in areas like the automotive industry, where weight is important but it's use had been limited by cost.

            My understanding was that the primary drivers for using titanium in aerospace were heat and fatigue characteristics, and that otherwise aluminium was almost always a better choice, if the design was capable of using it well. (Similar specific modulus of elasticity, so if you have the space you can use large-diameter tubing to get lower weight for the same performance.) As such, I'd expect to see automotive titanium used only in areas where volume or fatigue is a big concern. Are there other areas in whic

            • by slinches (1540051)

              True, if the temps. are low and there are no geometry constraints, aluminum would probably be the best choice regardless of cost. Although, I was thinking mostly about engine components. Cast Ti blocks would be stronger and reduce the need for cooling compared to aluminum and are still much lighter than steel/cast iron.

              As far as other areas go, there are already quite a few bicycle parts that are already available in Ti which would likely become much more popular if the price dropped significantly.

          • by jbeaupre (752124)

            I actually use titanium alloy because of its great fatigue properties. I've cycled Ti64 at 50% of yield for 10^10 cycles without failure.

            • by slinches (1540051)

              I guess that really depends what you're comparing it to. Ti fatigue strength can be superior to almost all aluminums and even many standard stainless steels, but there are some nickel alloys that have an endurance limit at or above yield.

              • by jbeaupre (752124)

                Cool. I never knew that about nickel alloys. Nickel is avoided in surgical products due to nickel alleriges. So as soon as I see nickel in the name, I move on.

                Still, I'm intrigued. I've seen titanium alloys do the same and thought it was a fluke. The stuff still broke, but after cycling a couple million times at 110% of yield.

        • by Artraze (600366)

          Meh.

          First: It's 66% heavier than aluminum, and about half the strength of hardened steel.

          Don't get me wrong, titanium is pretty good stuff, but it still has trade offs beyond price. After all, it's only about 2-5 more expensive than stainless (depending on type of stainless form factor, etc) so if it was so clearly better, why is it so specialty?

          As a comparison:

          Aluminum:
          Vastly easier machine, vastly easier to cast (much lower melting point).
          In terms of strength/weight, aluminum is actually quite competitiv

        • "Old Spice" markets disposable razors claimed to have blades of titanium. They dull very quickly and become effectively useless about 4 times faster than steel.
      • I work with titanium. Buying 500 kg this week. It's not that bad. I'd use more of it if it were cheaper.

        Much like women!

        But I wouldn't get them in 500kg packages.

      • by Khyber (864651)

        Oh there is worse stuff. Have fun machining tungsten carbide, I'll be waiting here with a laser in case you decide your regular stuff isn't 'cut' out for the job!

        • We don't machine tungsten carbide in our shop, but we do make some pure tungsten parts

          We buy it in 2' long rods from China. We have to buy a years worth at a time, lead time is so bad it is the only feasible way we have found to get any kind of price discount.

          Cheaper titanium would be useful for us too.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      the problem with titanium is that its currently incredibly expensive to refine it from its ore, if the costs of refining it the problems of "working" it aren't major hurdles compared to its . Its already used extensively in Aircraft frames were its weight to strength ratio make it economic despite its high cost. if the cost of refining it dropped by the amounts claimed we would see HUGE increases in the use of titanium.

  • Perhaps with enough investment, his dreams could become true?

    Protip: businesses that have a ready market crying out for the products that they claim to be able to make cheaply don't need to be spending time talking to the press.

  • by clarkkent09 (1104833) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @04:40AM (#43012547)

    new technology that could reduce the prices of tantalum and titanium ten-fold.
     
    Noooooo, my huge cache of veldspar will become worthless! Oh titanium, not tritanium..... never mind.

  • by 1u3hr (530656) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @05:13AM (#43012631)

    Reduce the prices ten-fold

    Really? I think you're trying to say "reduce by 90%".

    Or you could have just quoted TFA : "for less than a tenth of such powderâ(TM)s current price". But that's The Economist, their editors actually care about both the English language and making sense.

    • What's wrong with tenfold?
      • by 1u3hr (530656) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @07:40AM (#43013065)

        Tenfold = ten times as much. Not one tenth. If you mean "one tenth" SAY "one tenth".
        "reduce tenfold" literally means take away ten times. i.e. 1-10 = -9 Since that's nonsense, we can only guess what they actually mean

        http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/tenfold [oxforddictionaries.com]
        tenfold adjective. ten times as great or as numerous:

        • by Anonymous Coward

          As a scientist, I hear '-fold' used to refer to both increases and decreases at equal frequencies. 'Reduce by ten-fold' is a normal usage, despite your interpretation of this one dictionary's entry on the word.

        • by Twinbee (767046)
          Think of it as the multiplicative inverse. The key word is 'reduce'. If he said: "increased the price tenfold" (to mean costing 10x as much), you wouldn't complain then. So I don't see what's wrong with it.
          • by 1u3hr (530656)

            The key word is 'reduce'. If he said: "increased the price tenfold" (to mean costing 10x as much), you wouldn't complain then.

            Because you can increase tenfold. Not reduce.He actually means reduce by 90%. Or reduce to one tenth. "Tenfold" is nonsense.

            • by Twinbee (767046)
              Everyone knew what it meant, including you, but putting that aside, mathematically and logically it is sound because:

              Increase 10 fold = Times by 10
              Decrease 10 fold = Divide by 10

              Even if it isn't commonly used (which I think it is anyway), I'd WANT to put that into common parlance just because it is so logical, concise and reasonable. Don't forget English is still an evolving language.
        • by tragedy (27079)

          Reduce ten-fold means "divide by ten". Remember that division is actually repeated subtraction. If you have 13 of something, what do you have to subtract from it 10 times to get 0? The answer is 1.3. That's also, not by coincidence, the answer to "what do you get when you divide 13 by 10?" and "what do you get when you have 13 and reduce it tenfold?"

          • Hello tragedy,

            Your rationale suggests that "reduce ten-fold" would always be equivalent to zero. It seems that "reduce nine-fold" would be equivalent to "divide by ten", right?

            BTW, I have no problem with your conclusion, just with the rationale.

        • Finally titanium that's cheaper than dirt.

      • by jkflying (2190798)

        Take the price, say p. Then reduce it by 10p. Reduce means subtract, which leaves us with -9p. Do you see why it doesn't make sense?

        • by Bill Dimm (463823)

          On the other hand, if someone says "the price increased tenfold" would they mean the price is now 10p or 11p? Taking the words literally, as you have for reducing tenfold, it would be 11p, but I would guess that most people intend 10p -- not that it's right, but people tend to use such language in a very sloppy manner.

        • by Twinbee (767046)
          From that logic, 'increase' would mean 'add', and yet we know it doesn't in this context of 'tenfold'.
        • by tragedy (27079)

          To "reduce it by 10p" is not the same thing as "reduce it 10p". One is a way of describing subtraction and the other is a way of describing division.

          • by tragedy (27079)

            Hmmm. Replying to my own post here. I have to admit, on re-reading, it's too ambiguous for me to say that. I'm going to have to say that I'm flat out wrong on the post I'm replying to. For the "reduce tenfold" matter, however, you're definitely wrong. The "fold" part of "tenfold" implies repetition ten times, which, in this context, means division.

    • by Eowaennor (527108)
      Reduce tenfold seems legit, I've heard that used before meaning N / 10, increase tenfold would be N * 10
    • by pitchpipe (708843)

      Reduce the prices ten-fold

      Really? I think you're trying to say "reduce by 90%".

      Hmm. I guess this is why english isn't a programming language.

  • by Freestyling (997523) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @05:52AM (#43012729)

    Seriously, do the people posting these stories ever read TFA?

    "The metallic oxides are not *melted as with aluminum* but blended in powder form with a molten salt that serves as a medium and electrolyte."

    Wrong! The Hall-Héroult process (main Al production method) is exactly that! Dissolving alumina in molten cryolite to allow electrolysis without heating to alumina's melting point.

    So actually the apparent amazing breakthrough turns out to be, "oh hey, they found a new solvent to dissolve things in".

    Accurate facts please guys, leave the sensationalising by omission to the tabloids.

    • by ganv (881057)
      Economist tech news seems to always have these breathless descriptions of new technologies that will change everything without bothering to understand the underlying science. Why let facts get in the way of a story that sells? At the root of it, I think some economists realize that the model of continuous exponential growth used in their models depends on continuous revolutionary break-throughs in energy technology and basic materials. Since the recent reality has only had incremental changes, they feel
  • by Chrisq (894406) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @07:11AM (#43012943)

    "A small UK company is bringing new technology online that could reduce the prices of tantalum and titanium ten-fold.

    When all said and done, who doesn't like cheap tan and tits

  • Don't worry buyers; the manufacturers will be sure to pass this four-fold cost reduction on to you, their valued customer!
  • by MtViewGuy (197597) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @08:07AM (#43013189)

    It could literally change the world.

    Titanium--which is actually common in the soil--is an amazingly strong metal that is also quite corrosion resistant and can withstand very temperatures. Even with the expensive production processes used up till now, titanium was favored by the aerospace industry because of its strength and heat resistance and for making propeller blades for ship screws because they withstood the corrosive effects of seawater.

    With a vastly cheaper production process, it could make it possible to substantially lighten the weight of automobiles--which has the benefit of either lower petrol/diesel fuel consumption or needing a smaller battery pack (in the case of electric cars). And it means high-speed trains can be vastly lighter while still meeting safety standards for passenger train cars, which means smaller and more efficient traction motors on electric multiple unit (EMU) passenger trains.

    • No mod points, but you deserve them.

    • It isn't just the overall of weight of an automobile that can be lightened (we already have methods for that) but lightening the reciprocating mass of a vehicle. It won't work for things like cams or cranks due to the various titanium alloys being less ridged than the steel alloys at a given thickness but for things like gears, rods, and rockers it is a great option and is already used in very high performance engines where cost is not an option. Even though a thicker crank and cam made of titanium is still
    • This development may lower things for a while and raise demand for a while until more expensive sources are found to replace the cheap ones that ran out quickly (due to increased demand.) This will be the peak for that resource and it'll not ever likely do that again. It may not even peak that much with the delay in production rate increase and the commodity traitors (misspelling intentional.)

      The real problem long term is recycling. We don't recycle most materials and won't until they become rare enough o

    • by s122604 (1018036)

      it could make it possible to substantially lighten the weight of automobiles

      Possible but steel is actually better than titanium when it comes to the metallurgical property of toughness and fatigue resistance, and its cheap.
      Maybe some elements could be titanium-ized, but the body will probably be steel for the near future.

    • by HiThere (15173)

      I think you may be a bit optomistic. Titanium may actually be common, but how common are high quality ores? This benefits one step of the production process, but I really doubt that it would drop the price by a factor of 10. Perhaps 5, perhaps less. Unless I'm misunderstanding, and this allows one to use rather low quality ores as the basis of extraction.

      FWIW, the space shuttle was originally going to be made from Titanium, but it got switched to that ceramic tile system largely because the sources of T

  • This new technology would become obsolete as soon as we find a good source for unobtainium. But the smart money is on the administranium that would thwart any competitor from emerging.
  • by Troyusrex (2446430) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @08:32AM (#43013347)
    I happen to live close to the largest Tantalum processor in the world and so I've been following tantalum movements for a long time. The main constraint on Tantalum as it is isn't processing cost but supply of the mineral.

    At CURRENT extraction rates there's less than a 50 year supply so making the processing cheaper will just make it run out faster.It's possible some new sources will be found, but no apparent ones are on the horizon.

    • by Dishwasha (125561)

      Looking on or over the horizon in to outer space is much more difficult than looking up. Don't you know we'll be getting our tantalum from freakin' asteroids [slashdot.org]?

    • You assume the current, commercially viable, supply is all that is available. A newer, cheaper refining process can make sources that currently aren't commercially viable become viable.

      • by HiThere (15173)

        Cheaper refining processes don't automatically deal well with lower grade ores. Some do, most don't.

        One promissing approach is bioextraction. This is currently in use, I believe, in gold mining. Whether something analogous could be developed for other minerals is the question...but certainly doesn't seem implausible.

        Warning: Bioextraction is not a particularly environmentally friendly process. IIUC the extraction of gold involves soaking mine tailings in a pit of acidic water. It's also not fast. The

  • Would be almost the start of a titanium revolution in industry. It would reduce the cost of everything from boat propellers to aircraft to bicycles.

    • I wouldnt count on it :)

      • What? You think that the manufacturers wont pass on the savings to their customers? I can't believe that would happen. I mean, they would have to be incredibly greedy.
        • by frinkster (149158)

          What? You think that the manufacturers wont pass on the savings to their customers? I can't believe that would happen. I mean, they would have to be incredibly greedy.

          Manufacturers would certainly avoid passing savings on to their customers as long as they can get away with it, but it would never last. The first manufacturer to reduce price by 10% (and still earn an exorbitant profit) to gain even a sliver of market share would trigger a price war that permanently brings the cost in line with reality.

          • by cusco (717999)
            You mean the way that soda manufacturers barely make any profit on their product because the free market brings the price in line with 'reality'?

            One or two large manufacturers keeping their price artificially high will allow all the smaller manufacturers to maintain their prices only slightly lower. That's pretty much always the way the world works outside of RonPaulLand. Coca Cola and Pepsi have no intention of lowering the price on their flavored carbonic acid, and because they control 90 percent o
  • The world needs cheaper unobtanium, the big blue Smurfs put up a good fight.

  • by snadrus (930168) on Tuesday February 26, 2013 @02:10PM (#43017069) Homepage Journal

    Steel has gotten very expensive as China industrializes, which hurts many industries. Titanium is highly plentiful and if it could compete with steel on even a fraction of its markets then it would help reduce the world's demand. Fun unintended consequences may include a resurgence in building construction.

    • Now I realize retail and wholesale are two different worlds but here in Taiwan retail I just bought 36 meters of 1" diameter 18 guage steel square tubing for about US$72.00. I thought that was quite cheap actually. 36 meters, that's over a hundred feet so about seventy cents a linear foot.

      I was just driving down south over the Chinese New Year and I saw nothing but truck after truck carrying steel rolls.

      I suspect steel has gotten expensive in some countries and not so much in others. Copper is the same way

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