Bay could drive titanium industry

By Michele McPherson

They call it the super metal. Titanium. It is strong and lightweight, it is anti-corrosive and withstands high temperatures, but it is expensive.
It is associated with high-quality, whether it's the latest golf clubs or spacecraft components.
New Zealand, and particularly Western Bay, has the opportunity to become a world frontrunner in the development of new and cheaper titanium products using cost-effective powder metallurgy - a process of blending fine powdered materials and fabricating intricate components.
Titanox Development, which has established a production plant in Newton St, Mount Maunganui, is producing fine titanium alloy powder following 10 years of research and development.
It is one of the few producers of titanium alloy powder in the world.
Across the city, the Titanium Industry Development Association (TiDA) - based in the Engineering Block on Bay of Plenty Polytechnic's Windermere campus - has installed the latest powder metallurgy equipment and is bringing interested parties and (engineering) companies together to develop exciting new products based on the Titanox powder.
A powder metallurgy expert, Germany's Professor Bernd Kieback, this week told the New Zealand group that development should first focus on a niche market such as the medical sector - the titanium alloy powder can be used in artificial hip and knee joints, bone screws and plates, heart valves, pacemakers, orthodontic bracelets, and surgical devices.
Professor Kieback, who heads the leading powder metallurgy research laboratory in Europe, said TiDA had made a good start by forming a partnership between academia and engineers involved in titanium powder activities.


"This partnership has developed rapidly and collaboration is strong. It's better than having individual activity," he said.
Asked if the Western Bay could host a $1 billion industry on the back of the titanium alloy powder, Professor Kieback said: "It's possible ... if you are ready to make the right things. You have to keep the development at the very high level and you need to have research and development funding to find new solutions as the market moves."
Professor Kieback, who signed a collaboration agreement with TiDA, is the director of Fraunhofer Institute's Manufacturing and Advanced Materials branch lab, and is also director of Dresden Technical University's Institute of Materials Science.
He will be sending PhD students to Tauranga, and he said: "TiDa is interested to include our knowledge into their concepts."
This week Professor Kieback gave a lecture on the advances in powder metallurgy during a symposium organised by TiDA at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic.
He said more titanium products, made from powder metallurgy, could be used in the industrial, aerospace, automotive and medical sectors.
The two main techniques used to form and consolidate the powder are laser sintering and metal injection molding.
The material is pressed into a desired, often complex, shape and heated in a controlled atmosphere to bind together.
A popular form is titanium foam, and the new products can be created without intricate machining, reducing cost and making the price more attractive.
Professor Kieback said only 100,000 tonnes of titanium metal was produced in the world, compared with 1.45 billion tonnes of steel and China used a third of that production.
"You don't want to compete with China," he said.
He believed the demand for titanium could grow by about 10 per a year, up from its present 4 per cent.
"There are new applications for titanium and more opportunities to move into new markets. In Germany, there are 160,000 hip operations a year, costing 10,000 euros each. Imagine what sort of business that is, using titanium.
"If you think about steel, you need a lot of money to build up a steel company. With titanium, you can start with a little bit of money and a lot of knowledge. In 10 to 20 years, titanium will be much more important than its present 100,000 tonnes."
He had talked to Volkswagen about using titanium in their car exhaust systems.
The vehicle manufacturer wouldn't take that step until the price of titanium was reduced - if VW made the step, it would have helped add 15,000 tonnes a year to world titanium production.
Professor Kieback said there were 50 million cars in the world.
"If the titanium is only going into the exhaust systems, then production would reach one million tonnes a year. That's the potential with new titanium development."
He was impressed by the quality of the Titanox titanium alloy powder. "What is fascinating is that the powder is in small particle size and it has the right properties to go into the new technologies, and advances.
"Titanox has been a pilot plant but it can now scale up to a production level.
" I wouldn't go into the aircraft sector straightaway - they will push the price down.
"Its powder can be sold at the highest possible price and it's better to start with the medical sector," Professor Kieback said.
Titanox is aiming to start commercial production at 20kg a day or five tonnes a year.
The powder can sell for up to $1000 per kg and five tonnes would produce $5 million a year.
Professor Kieback said long term, the New Zealand industry didn't have to just rely on the amount of powder Titanox produced.
"With what I see happening here, you can build your competence in the titanium application sector, and I see no problem that in a few years, the powder can also come from other parts of the world.
"The technology developed here can then be used to produce new, exciting titanium products for the world market," he said.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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