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METALS: Fiasco in Titanium?

4 minute read

One of the Government’s most costly and coddled cold-war babies was its crash program to mass-produce titanium, the “wonder metal” that is lighter than steel and tougher than aluminum. To get the metal for supersonic planes, the U.S. gave out some $215 million in federal loans, stockpile-buying contracts and research grants that helped boost production of titanium sponge from 75 tons in 1950 to 14,000 tons last year. More than 90% of the 1957 output was bought by the Government. But last week the Government and producers alike were willing to concede that titanium had fallen short of everyone’s high hopes for it. Complained a vice president of a titanium-producing steel company: “Titanium is the greatest fiasco in metallurgical history. It draws gases to it like flies to flypaper. The cost is forbiddingly high, and the strength-to-weight ratio is not everything it’s cracked up to be.”

Other titanium makers thought this was too pessimistic, even though the government-aided titanium sponge plants are running at about 50% of capacity. Sales of finished mill products will edge up from last year’s 5,100 tons to 6,000 or 7,000 tons this year, but will fall well below the 11,000 tons earlier predicted for 1957. Said the president of the No. 2 fabricator, Mallory-Sharon Titanium Corp.’s James A. Roemer: “There is no question that we will be capable of producing more titanium in 1957 than we will sell.”

Seeking protection in a softening market, Mallory-Sharon announced a merger with National Distillers & Chemical Corp. to form the world’s largest integrated producer of titanium and its lightweight cousin, zirconium. National Distillers will bring to the merger its new $24 million plant for titanium and zirconium sponge and a cushioning $22,650,000 Atomic Energy Commission contract for zirconium, which is used in reactors. More important, National has found a way to slash the sponges’ high cost by using liquid sodium instead of magnesium in the reduction process. Together, the two companies hope to have enough resources (assets: $55 million) to cut costs and to develop civilian uses for the metal whose military market is being cut back.

Bugs. The titanium industry was born with the jet age. To reach a goal of 15,000 tons of titanium mill products by 1957 (an amount that will not be needed for years), the Government encouraged five companies to start making the metal. Shoved along too fast, the untried metal soon developed many bugs. The first unalloyed titanium proved too brittle in aircraft; it tore easily, and fatigued at temperatures above 900°F. One 200,000-lb. batch was thrown out because it was-too hard to machine. Titanium parts in engines failed in flight.

Yet the Defense Department and aircraft manufacturers doggedly kept solving these problems, figuring that tomorrow’s planes and missiles would bring forth a huge demand for the wonder metal.

Cutback. Half the metal in North American’s Navaho missile was to be titanium; Republic built the all-titanium XF-103 experimental fighter. But both projects were scrubbed in recent defense cutbacks. Production of Boeing’s B-52 bomber, whose Pratt & Whitney J57 engine took more than 50% of all titanium mill output last year, was stretched out. To compound the trouble, the Government cut stockpile buying to a trickle.

As titanium struggled, stainless-steel alloys were being developed to approach it in heat resistance and strength-to-weight ratio. And titanium, at $18 a Ib. for the top alloys, cannot compete with the stronger stainless steels at $2 a Ib. The big hope for producers now is to lower the price radically, make titanium cheap enough for civilian uses.

Some makers are already off to a good start in taking their eggs out of the military basket. This year’s civilian orders are up 600% for Rem-Cru Titanium Inc., owned jointly by Remington Arms Co. and Crucible Steel Co. of America. The total is still small, but a few big contracts are beginning to roll in. Last week Freeport Sulphur Co. ordered about $500,000 worth of titanium tubing from Titanium Metals Corp. of America to carry a highly corrosive ore slurry at Freeport’s new nickel and cobalt mine in Cuba.

Confident that better days are coming, Allied Chemical, & Dye Corp. and Kennecott Copper Corp. are going ahead with joint plans to construct a $40 million titanium production plant. But most makers figure that the large civilian market will be slow to develop. Said one titanium maker last week: “Everyone is scrambling for new markets. I don’t know where we will go from here.”

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