Titanium is named after the powerful Titans of Greek mythology. That’s because of its great strength. It’s also light, doesn’t corrode, and bends without breaking. Those properties make it a strategic raw material for many products, including aeroplane body parts, missiles, spacecraft and defence armour.
The problem is that it is not easy to buy titanium in Europe or find an economical way to recycle the scraps. Big firms like Airbus or the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company often look to the US or Russia when they need to buy titanium or get rid of the scraps for recycling. Now a new French factory called EcoTitanium is solving this supply and recycling problem by using advanced furnaces and other technology to recycle titanium. The process helps the environment by reducing emissions because recycling titanium uses less energy than refining titanium ore.
“Titanium is a valuable metal and we are going to dramatically improve the supply of it,” says Thomas Devedjian, chief financial officer at Eramet, a French mining and metals group that, together with a Kazakh firm and other partners, built EcoTitanium in the Auvergne volcanic region of central France.
EcoTitanium uses the latest technology in plasma and vacuum furnaces that consume less energy than other melting methods. A plasma furnace melts substances with heated gas, while a vacuum furnace melts with the absence of air to prevent contamination. Titanium requires special melting devices because it is so resistant to heat.
Cheaper and less wasteful
Titanium is not rare, but it is costly because it is hard to refine. The metal is usually made using the so-called Kroll process, which involves a lot of labour and extreme heat. Titanium is about six times more expensive to produce than steel. The new recycling plant, in Saint-Georges-de-Mons, about four hours by car south of Paris, will turn out aviation-grade titanium alloy that is a little cheaper than new titanium and less wasteful.
“The new plant will save a lot of energy,” Devedjian says. “We estimate that it will prevent the emission of 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, because we aren’t making titanium through the conventional, ore-based production channel, but recycling it using new furnace technologies that will cut waste.”
The European Investment Bank gave the plant a EUR 30 million loan, backed by the Investment Plan for Europe, an initiative started in 2014 to fund more innovative companies and break a cycle of declining investment in Europe. Without the EU bank’s help, EcoTitanium would have faced a tougher time financing itself. The plant, whose estimated total cost was EUR 48 million, was inaugurated in September 2017.
“European industries, especially the growing aviation sector, need more titanium and we are going to give them control over their own supply of the metal”
Big savings and the circular economy
“Europe needs this type of innovation,” says Mariateresa Di Giacomo, a senior loan officer at the European Investment Bank. “The aerospace industry is going quite well, so this is a natural investment for this industry and other sectors.”
There are many reasons the titanium recycling plant is a good idea, Di Giacomo said, but here are four of them:
The plant helps the metals industry reduce its consumption of primary titanium iron ore because titanium will be more plentiful.
There are big savings in emissions because turning ore into titanium metal consumes much more energy and labour than recycling it.
It gives European manufacturing a more independent and competitive supply.
It contributes to the circular economy by recycling an important metal and distributing it back into the manufacturing process.
European manufacturing, especially the machining process for making aeroplanes, creates large amounts of scrap titanium that are often sent outside Europe for reuse. For some plane parts, about 80 to 90 percent of titanium ends up as manufacturing scrap.
Chemicals, bicycles, toothpaste
Titanium is a critical metal for the aircraft industry, but it also is used in hulls of ships, bicycle frames and in the chemicals industry. It connects well with bone, so it is found in dental implants and prostheses. Titanium dioxide, the material used to refine titanium metal, is an excellent whitener for paint, sunscreen and toothpaste.
The EcoTitanium plant will create at least 60 jobs. When it reaches full capacity in about a year, it will be able to make thousands of tons of titanium alloy annually.
The plant also allows Eramet, the French mining and metals group, and its partners to offer titanium customers a wide range of services. The extraction of ore and production of titanium metal is done by UKTMP, a partner firm in Kazakhstan. The forging of titanium ingots is performed at another Eramet site in central France. Titanium finishing occurs at a factory in southwestern France. EcoTitanium handles recycling.
“This is a wonderful project,” Di Giacomo says. “It has a little bit of everything – new technology, new jobs, less waste, helping the circular economy.”