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Research aims to make titanium an affordable alternative to steel

Titanium is as strong as many steels, yet 45% lighter. It can be used to make exhaust systems, engine valves and other automotive parts that will last a vehicle's lifetime. Now, a team of university researchers is testing some made-in-Canada technologies that could make this high-priced metal an affordable alternative to steel.

The four-year, $3.3-million project, which received $2.2 million from Automotive Partnership Canada, is the brainchild of two Ontario companies: Kingston Process Metallurgy (KPM) of Kingston and Wescast Industries Inc. (Wescast) of Brantford. It could put Canada at the global forefront in the development of new and cheaper titanium products using cost-effective powder metallurgy—a process of blending fine-powdered materials and fabricating intricate components.

"This represents an entirely new production opportunity for KPM," says co-owner Dr. Boyd Davis. "The project affords us a unique opportunity to develop and test small quantities of titanium powder before we scale up to the pilot plant and commercial stages."

Titanium is already the metal of choice in the aerospace and medical industries. This "super metal" is strong, lightweight, anti-corrosive, and perhaps most importantly, it can withstand elevated temperatures. For automakers, that means engines can operate at higher revolutions per minute to provide better performance and lighter engines, which results in higher fuel efficiency.

But titanium's high cost has limited its use in the cost-conscious automotive sector. In this project, the industry partners are collaborating with university researchers from Nova Scotia and Ontario to develop and test new processes that could make it easier to produce titanium powder and create finished parts—putting its price on par with wrought and cast products.

"When KPM demonstrates the new extractive metallurgy process for producing titanium powder, the project will have already demonstrated how to take that powder from raw form to a finished part. That will give them a real jump on the competition," says Dalhousie University materials engineer and principal investigator Dr. Stephen Corbin.

The likelihood of success is bolstered by having an automotive company, Wescast, involved as a project partner from the outset. Wescast is the world's largest supplier of exhaust manifolds and turbocharger housings.

"The project integrates product development and end use," adds Dr. Davis. "With the complete supply chain represented, we stand a much better chance of a major breakthrough than individuals working in isolation."

Clayton Sloss, Director of Product Development at Wescast, says his company's competitiveness depends on finding a cost-effective way to make these parts out of titanium and titanium alloys, as opposed to iron, nickel or stainless steel.

"The trend towards lighter-weight metals like titanium alloy is very real and unstoppable given the ever-more stringent fuel economy standards that will roll out over the next decade," says Mr. Sloss. "This has the potential to positively impact our business in the long term and we have to begin preparing for that now."

The companies hope to have functional prototypes of various powders ready for pilot-scale testing within four years, with a scale-up to commercial production within five to 10 years. Wescast will use the powders to fabricate prototype parts that can be demonstrated to clients in the automotive supply chain.

Creating a new industry
In addition to Dr. Corbin, the project team includes material engineers from Dalhousie University (Dr. Donald Bishop and Dr. Kevin Plucknett), a process metallurgist from Queen's University (Dr. John Peacey) and an expert in metal forming and materials modeling from the University of Waterloo (Dr. Mary Wells), along with several graduate students. Two post-doctoral fellows will work as interns at KPM and Wescast.

"There is a growing demand for highly trained individuals who understand this new field," says Dr. Davis. "In all likelihood we will be making a career offer to that individual once the project has finished."

Mr. Sloss adds that such partnerships enable companies to leverage funding and expertise that would not otherwise be available.

"We talked with KPM about doing this project ourselves but quickly determined that the costs and risks were too high," says Mr. Sloss. "By working together, we have a better chance of solving these challenges and building a critical mass of expertise in this area. This project might represent the beginning of a new industry for Canada."