Friday, June 09, 2006

Living in the Titanium Age

Titanium is widely regarded both in myth and in actuality as a miraculous metal: it strong as steel at 60 percent of the weight; it resists corrosion and temperatures well, making it ideal for aeronautics manufacture with its reduction in fuel costs for less bulk. Titanium is naturally abundant. But at $40 a pound, titanium is expensive.

Why?: since the 1950's, titanium has ben produced through the Kroll process, which produces by-products like chlorine gas and
magnesium salts which are so toxic it is almost impossible to get the permits needed to expand production to meet the demand.
Now an MIT-based startyp called Avanti Metal has developed a greener oxide electrolysis process for producing titanium which could reduce the cost of titanium to less than a tenth of its current price.

Tech Review:
They mix titanium oxide with other oxides, such as magnesium oxide or calcium oxide; then they heat the mixture to about 1,700 degrees Celsius. This produces a bath of molten oxides, through which an electric current can be run. The electricity produces electrolysis, breaking the bond between the titanium and oxygen atoms, and the heavier titanium sinks. The result is a pool of liquid titanium at the bottom and oxygen bubbling out the top. The other molten oxides remain in place, acting as the electrolyte when more titanium oxide is added. "You just keep making more and more and more metal," Sadoway says.

Of course, they are still have only a small proof-of-concept smelting reactor cell, but I like hearing about a win-win story like this when everything else is so relentlessly fearful of the future. New industrial processes may not be as flashly as novel breaktroughs in personal electronics and pharmaceuticals, but their capacity to create a smarter relationship between humanity and the environment has farther-reaching effects on the quality of life for all humans than the iPod. ( Ok, I'm a little bitter since mine died)

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