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INDUSTRY: Titanium to the Fore

4 minute read

In its short commercial life, titanium has been tagged “the wonder metal.” As strong as steel, it weighs only half as much; heavier than aluminum, it is twice as strong. It doesn’t rust; it becomes tougher under high temperatures, and is more resistant to steam erosion than any other construction material. But titanium also has some major flaws: it costs $5 a Ib. in the raw state, is hard to fabricate, and production is only 1,400 tons a year.

Last week the Pentagon and private industry stepped up their titanium program in hopes of performing a new wonder with the “wonder metal.” They hope to transform the swaddling titanium industry into a full-grown giant. The Defense Materials Procurement Agency granted a fast tax write-off certificate, and NPA granted a $14.7 million loan to Du Pont to expand its present titanium facilities in Newport and Edge Moor, Del. (If advances in titanium production make the plant obsolete in the next few years, the Government will buy it back.)

Then the Air Force said it would provide subsidies to defense contractors who will replace steel parts with titanium. First in line was Pratt & Whitney, which with other jet engine producers has been experimenting with the metal for three years. P. & W. agreed to use titanium in the J57 engines for the B-52 (TIME, Aug. 4). The Pentagon hopes such moves will multiply the uses of titanium in a hurry, thus spur production and chop its cost per pound.

Big Rush. There was plenty of need for the big rush. Jet planes are already approaching the supersonic speeds at which aluminum wings will be melted by the friction of the air unless refrigerated. Titanium, on the other hand, holds up fine at the temperatures which occur at supersonic speeds. The Air Force feels that the first nation which makes titanium planes may well control the air.

For years, titanium dioxide (a powder) has been used in paint, while metallurgists sought to smelt it into a metal. It was not until 1946 that William Kroll, a metallurgist for the Bureau of Mines, managed to produce small grey spongelike globs of metal which could be cast into ingots. The Bureau sent a memo on titanium to Colonel John Dick, 49, chief of the Materials and Components Division of the Air Force Industrial Resources Directorate, “who became a one-man publicity bureau for the metal, began plugging it to the armed services.

At the same time, Dick urged private industry to step up its titanium efforts. Du Pont, which had begun smelting the metal with Kroll’s process, increased production from 50 to some 2,000 Ibs. of raw metal a day. The first big boost came last August when the Government approved a fast tax write-off on a $14 million investment of Titanium Metals Corp., jointly owned by Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. and National Lead (TIME, Aug. 20). The money was used to convert facilities at the Government’s $140 million wartime magnesium plant in Henderson, Nev. into a titanium smelter which now produces 60 tons of titanium a month.

Payoff. Last week, at Massachusetts’ Watertown Arsenal, the Army displayed weapons made with titanium parts. The Army hopes eventually to make entire vehicles for air drops out of the wonder metal. The infantry has tested a titanium base plate for its 81-mm. mortar, found that the lighter plate will permit it to reduce a mortar crew from four to three men. The Navy, which now carries a spare snorkel in submarines because they corrode so fast, has begun experimenting with non-corrosive titanium breathers.

With the new Government program, Dick feels that the problems of titanium will soon be licked. He predicts that by 1954 raw titanium will drop to $3 a lb., and that production will leap from its present 1,400 tons a year to 6,000 tons. But his sights are far higher. Says Dick: “Titanium will some day be used for the lock on your door.”

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