How titanium is made

A remarkable metal which is both strong and durable and at the same time incredibly light. Being also corrosion resistant and biocompatible it took its proper place in most industries from aircraft to medicine.

But we use it for our travel gear, making products that are perfect for both long and short journeys and sound high-tech and smart. Everyone who is hiking, camping or backpacking rates it high for all the properties mentioned: as strong as steel, titanium fork, spoon, knife and bottle are essential outdoor cooking equipment but weigh 2 times less.

What do we know about the metal we use in our everyday life?

Its story begins in Great Britain in the 1790s when it was discovered by pastor William Gregor. When analyzing magnetic sand from Cornwell he came across the residue he couldn't identify. He believed it to be a new metal which was confirmed by German chemist M.H. Klaproth in 1973 who also gave it the name of titanium. He named it after the Titans of Greek mythology and the name couldn’t be more perfect as those are mythological beings that embody physical strength.

Despite the discovery, it wasn’t produced until 1910 when Matthew A. Hunter developed a method to extract the metal from the ore. Because, though titanium is abundantly found in compounds as part of minerals in the Earth's crust it cannot be used in its natural form. Now we use another process to transform crude titanium (ore) to the type of metal we usually use, it is called the Kroll process, named after William J. Kroll, who invented this process in 1940 but not for titanium. It was originally created to produce zirconium and requires a complex and time-consuming (up to 6 months) process that involves dangerous chemicals and costly equipment.

The Kroll Process

To cut it short, titanium ore is extracted from mineral sand deposits, then in some sort of a mill heavier black particles of titanium ore are extracted. This ore is then further purified at the dry mill using an electrostatic separator. And there goes the Kroll process which is definitely very complicated and mostly consists of removing oxygen, which results in making titanium liquid, then a few steps of purification, distillation and adding magnesium or sodium to create a metallic titanium sponge. This sponge is then crushed, pressed and then melted in an electrode vacuum arc furnace at extremely high temperatures. The melted titanium is allowed to harden and solidify in the furnace.

What you get is then fed to an enormous mechanical press where after several hours of concentrated compression it takes the shape of sheets. Finally, after a process of further heating, cutting and polishing titanium sheets are finished. These sheets are shipped to final manufacturers around the world, for example, aircraft manufacturers to be used to make many of the major components, including jet engines, landing gear and airframes.

Milling titanium

Producing titanium is quite an expensive activity. About 50% of its price are costs related to the machining process. Today the largest producer of titanium is China with South Africa and Australia taking the second and third place respectively. The USA has 13th place, producing 23 times less than China.

So, a long history and lots of machinery are involved in producing titanium. It is called a metal of the future, but we use it today and for the future: reusable titanium utensils instead of plastic ones and titanium tumbler for your coffee to go instead of disposable ones that we’re usually offered.