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This question was prompted by another one.

A long time ago, before I well-documented my internet research, I looked into the history of Titanium, its procurement, refinement, and work-ability. I cannot remember any sources beyond a few Wikipedia articles that have since changed significantly. I was fascinated by this metal for several reasons: It was only available in the Soviet Union (and Manchuria?) during most of the Cold War. It's a very useful metal with very high melting temperature and tensile strength. And strangest of all, titanium dioxide exists almost everywhere in the ground, yet in the 1960's, the USA had to secretly purchase titanium from the USSR to build its super spyplane, the A-12 and SR-71 Blackbird.

So what's the deal with Titanium? When was a TiO2 refinement process invented that let us not be dependent on Ilmenite (FeTiO3)? When were major sources of Titanium found and exploited outside of the Soviet Union and China?

Ultimately what I'm asking is: when and how did the West lose its dependency on the USSR for Titanium?

EDIT: If I recall my research correctly, something changed in the early 1990's. I think some new refinement process. Does anyone know?

  • Perhaps the popularity of titanium razor blades beginning in the 1990's drove a market realignment in production. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 2 '16 at 15:01
  • @PieterGeerkens That would shock me. I thought those were just titanium plated anyway, just like titanium plated drill bits. However, I do seem to recall something changing in the 90's. I thought it was some refinement process like TiO2 refinement. – DrZ214 Apr 2 '16 at 19:26
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    I worked for a year programming a model for a hot rolling mill; titanium is much more finicky through the mill than steel is. My understanding is that the computing power to successfully put titanium through the rolling mills only became available in the mid to late 1990's. Before that titanium had to be cold rolled, which is less suitable to the production of cheap disposable razors. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 2 '16 at 19:51
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    In a 5 or 6 stand mill, the red hot bar comes in at just 5 or 6 mph, but flies down the roll-out table at speeds above 40 mph in sheets a few hundred feet long. If something jams because a temperature prediction is off by a couple of degrees, that is a few tons of very hot metal flying around at very high speed. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 2 '16 at 19:53
  • @PieterGeerkens Fascinating. It sounds like you're just the person I need to talk to. But can you explain exactly why computing power is needed for in a mill? My understanding is, you know the mass and shape of the incoming metal. So you know how much heat transfer is needed to make it a certain temperature. If the incoming titanium blocks are the same, what needs to be computed on the fly? – DrZ214 Apr 2 '16 at 19:56
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In the 1950s and 1960s titanium was a very exotic metal which few had the know how to make or use at the quantities and qualities required for a high tech military vehicle. Titanium is a notoriously difficult metal to work with. You can't refine it like iron ore, instead you get titanium carbide. Instead, you use a more complex process resulting in titanium sponge, basically refined titanium metal. It burns when exposed to oxygen or nitrogen at high temperature, so traditional wielding doesn't work. Working it with traditional tools will quickly wear and break those tools.

It takes time to find the ore, build mines, mine the ore, transport it, learn how to refine it, refine it, produce metal, learn how to produce higher quality metal, etc... When a secret US military project in the 1960s (the A-12) suddenly needs large quantities which TiMet (the one large US producer at the time) could not meet, they have to look elsewhere. The Soviet Union was also investigating titanium for military use, they had a stockpile ready to be purchased, so Lockheed did.

"Our supplier, Titanium Metals Corporation, had only limited reserves of the precious alloy, so the CIA conducted a worldwide search and using third parties and dummy companies, managed to unobtrusively purchase the base metal from one of the world's leading exporters – the Soviet Union. The Russians never had an inkling of how they were actually contributing to the creation of the airplane being rushed into construction to spy on their homeland."

-- Rich, Ben R.; Janos, Leo (1994). Skunk Works : a personal memoir of my years at Lockheed (1st pbk. ed.). New York, NY: Back Bay Books. ISBN 9780316743006

Titanium came to be used more and more in the aerospace industry's quest for stronger and lighter aircraft which increased commercial demand. This increased commercial demand meant increased supply problems for the US military.

The 1983 document "Titanium: Past, Present, and Future. Report of the Panel on Assessement of Titanium Availabilty: Current and Future Needs of the Committee on Technical Aspects of Critical and Strategic Materials" by the National Materials Advisory Board of the US National Research Council lays out the problems the US was facing and their recommendations for fixing them.

  1. US competitiveness in titanium sponge production.
  2. Size and quality of the US stockpile.
  3. Risky technological improvements.

Basically, US industry had trouble competing on the world market.

In chapter one they lay out their conclusions and recommendations. Here's the main points.

  1. Our production facilities were great, but we were behind in making sponge to feed them.
  2. There's no ore supply problem.
  3. Titanium use is fluctuating like aluminum and magnesium did when they were introduced (the only new metals introduced in modern times), but faster, leading to problems for suppliers.
  4. Hedge buying by the aircraft industry is causing artificial shortages.
  5. It takes 3 to 5 years to get a sponge factory up and running.
  6. There are numerous bottlenecks in US titanium production.

And so on. There's 19 points in all. They recommended these steps be taken to smooth demand and encourage the US titanium industry to upgrade.

  1. The US purchase titanium via the national stockpile to smooth demand.
  2. Give the titanium industry tax credits and incentives.
  3. Eliminate bottlenecks.
  4. Sponsor R&D to improve the workability of titanium.
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    Thank you, this is definitely the most comprehensive answer. It explains the complexities of the industry during the time I wanted. It appears the answer is that Ti ore was suppliable, but Ti refined into concentrated sponge (needed to building things out of Titanium) was not available in large supply from western sources. I'm still reading the source document and I may comment further. – DrZ214 Apr 7 '16 at 0:04
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Please clarify what you mean by dependence on USSR/Russian titanium. Do you mean:

  • Titanium minerals which then need to be processed into metal and then into engineered items,
  • Titanium metal which needs to be processed into engineering items, such as titanium sponge metal, or,
  • Engineered items made of titanium such as aircraft ribs or landing gear?

If you mean titanium minerals (rutile and ilmenite), which are the source of 90 percent of the world's titanium, Russia is not in the top eight producers in the world. Data for 2011 reveal those countries to be Australia (19.4% of world production), South Africa (17.3%), Canada (10.4%), India (8.6%), Mozambique (7.7%), China (7.5%), Vietnam (7.3%) and Ukraine (5.3%).

If you mean engineered titanium items, Russia is still a major source of parts for aircraft. In 2013 Boeing bought aircraft ribs from Russia

Boeing buys so much titanium from Russia — the airplane maker plans $18 billion in purchases over the coming decades — that it now researches new alloys with the Russians.

“Russia is a critical partner for 787 titanium parts,”

  • I mean the raw material mined out of the earth. I'm pretty sure America could process it in a refinery as good as any other nation, and then work it into products. But you need an economical source in the ground to begin with. By the way, your stats don't tell me anything, because I'm interested in the situation as it existed starting in 1945. I'm pretty sure 1945 - 1970, USSR was not only in the top 8, but the number 1 producer of raw titanium (which as you say, must be processed into metal sheets, which is then worked into actual machines). – DrZ214 Apr 2 '16 at 18:50
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when and how did the West lose its dependency on the USSR for Titanium?

In reality the West still seriously depends for Titanium on Russia.

The main reason is pure economics. Titanium has a very high cost price, so Boeing may take a bit, but you may be sure that GM would never want it (unless a cheap technological process of making Titanium is invented).

So to establish Titanium production you have not only to invest a vast sum of money in a hi-tech factory, but also to convince a few big companies, such as Boeing or Airbus, that they should break existing contracts and buy your stuff. How much profit do you expect to make from this?

Capitalism doesn't work like this, but Soviet Socialism did. So Soviet Union once made the largest Titanium production which still holds the biggest market share.

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    This answer would be improved by sources. I'm not sure what "high cost price" means - is that different from "high price". I'm skeptical of the assertion that capitalism cannot attract money for large investments. I'm not arguing these points, there just isn't enough evidence presented to convince me. – Mark C. Wallace Apr 2 '16 at 11:52
  • @MarkC.Wallace I'm not sure what "high cost price" means I mean how much it costs for manufacturer to produce things (without any additional profit). – Matt Apr 2 '16 at 12:03
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    Don't be so sure. IIRC, Ti today costs around $4/kg. A fully loaded Aerobus A380 is 600 tons, which if that was all Ti, would cost 2.4 million. That's extremely cheap. The real cost of A380 today is 430M, and it uses much cheaper stuff. The raw material costs are usually just a tiny % of overall costs. The reason "Ti is expensive" is it's much more difficult to weld and work than steel or aluminum. This is why I'm interested in raw Ti mining from the ground. Any industrial nation can work Ti metallurgy, so the important factor is when the sources multiplied outside the USSR and China. – DrZ214 Apr 2 '16 at 19:07
  • I realized more: Your points aren't exactly wrong, but there's more to it. USSR invested in titanium submarines, which requires huge titanium workshops. Yes that was socialism, but I imagine these workshops still exist and are used for all sorts of profitable Titanium-building today, a huge advantage. Huge investments required is valid but irrelevant to my point. My question is about raw sources of titanium, which is the primary bottleneck. It doesn't matter to me where the titanium is shipped to and what factory uses it. I care about where the mines are and how big they are. – DrZ214 Apr 4 '16 at 0:35
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    @DrZ214 raw sources of titanium, which is the primary bottleneck Nope. Previously Russia imported raw materials mostly from Ukraine, but now it switched to other countries like Senegal, South Africa, Australia, Sierra Leone, Thailand etc. Russia itself doesn't have major Titanium mines at all. – Matt Apr 4 '16 at 8:07
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Looks like rutile became available in the seventies in decent quantities from Australia. But this seems a low-grade ore.

Norway started a major mine in 1960, which is still producing today. It probably didn't start at full production capacity.

But even earlier, in 1950 the Lac Tio mines in Canada opened.

You'd almost think the Americans imported the Titanium from Russia to make a point, not because they needed to.

  • Thank you this is some great data, but I have to say the Lac Tio link has some misleading info. The largest Ilmenite deposit may be in Canada, but without knowing its concentration we have no idea of it's capacity. For all we know, the ilmenite concentration may be 1%, and a Russian site might be 10%. That alone would spell 10x higher production. Plus they explicitly said Ilmenite, not "Titanium", so for all we know there are Rutile deposits bigger than that site in Canada. However, I will redirect my search for now. Canada's bound to have better records than some other regions. – DrZ214 Apr 4 '16 at 0:26
  • @DrZ214: It's apparently 32%-36%. And we're talking _mega_tons of titanium here. - 52 MT left. – MSalters Apr 4 '16 at 0:36
  • Thank you but where does it say 32% - 36%? The link in your comment is the same as the Lac Tio link in your post, and no percentages are mentioned there. It's also possible that other regions were undercutting prices (vie low-paid labor), which would mean Lac Tio might not be producing much in the late '50's even if the capacity and machines were there. – DrZ214 Apr 6 '16 at 23:00
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The various claims you will read that the United States "depends" on Russia (or more properly the Ukraine) for titanium is pure nonsense, almost hysteria.

The rutile ores of titanium in the Ukraine are good quality and because labor is relatively cheap there it is possible to get this good quality ore relatively cheaply. Basically we saved a few pennies by buying Ukrainian ore. If the Ukrainian ore had not been available at a good price we could have gotten titanium ore from any number of other places.

The global metals market is just that: global. Metal comes from anywhere and everywhere, wherever it is cheapest.

The idea that a metal could only be found in one place or that some enemy has a "monopoly" is just ignorant nonsense. This same sort of hysterical nonsense fuels the china-has-a-monopoly-on-rare-earth-metals story.

People buy metal wherever it is cheapest, nobody has a monopoly.

This is the production of titanium in 1918:

enter image description here

These concentrates had 492.15 tons of pure titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is 60% titanium by weight. That means in 1918 the US produced out of this one small mine in Virginia 492.15 x 60% = 295 tons of titanium. It takes roughly 30 tons of titanium to make an SR-71. That means in one year alone (1918) the US produced enough titanium to make almost 10 Blackbirds, using 1918 technology. Obviously the methods to produce titanium in 1918 were far more primitive than what was available in 1964.

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    You haven't stated and timeframe in your answer, so I think you missed the point that I was asking about early post-WW2 time, 1945 - 1970. Back then the titanium sources were much fewer. Obviously USA does not depend on Russian sources today, because there are at least a dozen Ti mines in Africa and other parts of Asia. It has been very hard for me to find dated information way back in time, but from reading a lot about aircraft and space industry, I get the strong impression that the West had no large native sources of the stuff at least up to the 1960's. – DrZ214 Apr 4 '16 at 16:18
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    Once again, you have stated no timeframe for your comment. For all we know, those titanium deposits in USA were unknown in 50's and 60's. And no no you do not need "only a few tons". SR-71 was 30.6 tons unloaded, and 80% of that is 24.48 tons. There was also a very large research project to finally find the right Ti alloy, which I imagine consumed much much more. – DrZ214 Apr 5 '16 at 21:19
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    @Schwern Thank you for pointing out my mistake. I have updated the answer to be more exact and show the exact production of titanium in 1918 which is a better example. – Tyler Durden Apr 6 '16 at 15:15
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    @TylerDurden Thanks for updating. The facts are now more correct, and demonstrates domestic ore production, the conclusion doesn't follow. It assumes production of raw metals remains constant, or increases, over time. It assumes ore production = very high quality metal needed by the SR-71. It assumes the SR-71 will get all the available titanium; most titanium ore is used for pigments and alloy additives and there are competing users (remember that 195 tons for the rails). – Schwern Apr 6 '16 at 17:02
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    Mate, you are seriously overreacting. If you've read my comments from other answers here (and let's be honest, you can read those for free from your chair), you could see I know more than the first thing about Titanium. It took me 2 comments before you put a timestamp or source on anything (other than a Chinese myth). I don't appreciate being told I know next to nothing and have made no attempt to find anything on the web, especially when my comments here can easily show otherwise. We ask for sources and clarity when we see none and don't usually get a personal attack in return. – DrZ214 Apr 6 '16 at 22:30

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