How Australia can help the US with its titanium problem
Boeing has relied heavily on Russia for its supply of titanium to use in aircraft building. Picture: AFP
Australia has taken the first steps towards playing a key role in reducing the United States’ dangerous dependence on Russia and China for titanium.
America has allowed its defence preparedness to slip in a number of areas, but few are more serious than the US “titanium gap”.
Titanium has become essential for aircraft production and certain medical areas. As one of the largest producers of the raw mineral, Australia has always been well placed to develop titanium powder and similar treatment plants to reduce the Americans’ dependence on Russia and China.
But it never took that vital titanium powder production step to deepen the US alliance.
So it is a strange paradox that after years of neglect in this area, in 2021 Australia is developing two separate pioneering titanium powder operations using different techniques. Each Australian group believes they have substantially improved the processes being used in Russia and China.
However we are not alone and others around the world are also looking at better ways of producing titanium powder.
Australia’s thrusts come from a West Australian family-owned company, Coogee Chemicals, and from a small listed public company, Amaero, which was spun out of base research at Melbourne’s Monash University. Monash still owns around 9 per cent of the Amaero capital.
To underline the long-term global importance of these current Australian endeavours, in 2013 Boeing was forced to set up aircraft part manufacturing facilities in Russia to guarantee its supply of titanium. Tension between Russia and the US eight years ago was much lower than today.
Russia’s VSMPO-AVISMA is the world’s largest titanium producer and has become the main supplier to Boeing. The American company has been researching new alloys with the Russians.
Recently, when US-Russian tensions rose, Russia put on the table a set of measures that, if adopted, could see the country halt crucial supplies of titanium to Boeing. That rang alarm bells
A new aircraft rolls out of the Boeing factory in Washington. Boeing was forced to set up aircraft part manufacturing facilities in Russia to guarantee its supply of titanium. Picture: AFP
WA’s Martin family are the main shareholders in Coogee Chemicals, which makes and supplies a wide range of industrial, agricultural and mineral processing chemicals to both the Australian and international markets. It makes cyanide in a joint venture with Wesfarmers.
Among the Coogee products is chlorine, which it supplies to pigment makers. One of the by-products of pigment-making is titanium tetrachloride which in the plant complex Coogee are developing is combined with magnesium to produce titanium powder. One of the characteristics of titanium powder is that it can be used in 3D printing and other moulding exercises to produce aircraft parts. The Coogee process was developed in collaboration with the CSIRO and was successfully tested in a pilot plant and now a 200 tonne operational plant is being commissioned.
A Coogee Chemicals plant in WA.
When that process is successfully completed Coogee plans to increase output dramatically either via string of 200 tonne plants or one or two much larger plants, including one established overseas. Like Amaero, Coogee will almost certainly link with US defence suppliers.
Amaero was established in Melbourne during 2013, to commercialise metal additive manufacturing technologies developed by Monash University.
Its base business is metal 3D printing supply, additive manufacturing equipment and materials such as aluminium alloy.
Customers include those in the aviation, defence and space sectors in both Australia and the US.
Unlike Coogee, the Amaero process goes through the conventional stages of titanium production – titanium sponge, titanium bar and then titanium powder. The Amaero advances to the base technology have been further developed by Dr James Sears who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on titanium powder atomisation.
Sears believes that the new Amaero technology will become the global benchmark for titanium alloy powder manufacturing, partly because of its lower cost.
Amaero this week announced that it will construct in Melbourne what is expected to be the world’s most advanced titanium alloy gas atomisation powder manufacturing facility, to produce high-grade aerospace grade titanium at approximately half the cost of the nearest competitor. As I understand it, the Coogee and Amaero titanium powders are not exactly the same and may be used in different areas.
Amaero announced it will fund the titanium powder plant and is seeking government support for a titanium bar plant. The Amaero bar complex is designed so that it can use a great deal of titanium scrap, which is currently not easily processed.
If government support is not available Amaero will need additional cash to complete the bar plant, either from shareholders or the US defence industry. Once the relatively small Amaero bar and powder plants are operational it is likely that much larger plants will be erected in Australia and the US. Amaero has close contacts with two of the major US defence suppliers and former defence minister Christopher Pyne is on the Amaero advisory board.
Former Coalition minister Christopher Pyne.
Australia has been the world’s leading producer of mineral sands for a long time and it is an indictment of the nation but we never took our production to the titanium powder stage.
Accordingly the Coogee and Amaero developments are way overdue and are important for the nation and the ANZUS alliance.
And hopefully they will foster confidence in the US that Australia can be a significant supplier of materials and parts.
Written by Robert Robert Gottliebsen and published by The Australian.
The original article can be found here: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/how-australia-can-help-the-us-with-its-titanium-problem/news-story/0f81dc1e9c4655be0c9f801d3df8f50b