Testing Its Metal | January 29, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 5 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 5 | p. 28
Issue Date: January 29, 2007

Testing Its Metal

To DuPont, titanium dioxide is becoming more than just white pigment
Department: Business
Credit: General Motors
Credit: General Motors

THE BUSINESS of making titanium dioxide to whiten paints, plastics, and paper has been relatively mature for more than a decade. That reality is spurring DuPont, the world's largest TiO2 producer, to look beyond the TiO2 molecule for growth.

Richard C. Olson, vice president and general manager of DuPont Titanium Technologies, says the new direction is a way to kick-start growth for the overall titanium business. "We have a few ways to grow," he says. "We can grow organically, we can grow through acquisition, or we can grow in this third way—taking core intellectual property and extending it to other markets."

The global TiO2 business has been growing 3.5% annually, according to James E. Fisher, president of Hilton Head Island, S.C.-based International Business Management Associates (IBMA). Regions in which the industry has been more established, such as North America and Western Europe, have been posting a mere 1.5% growth. Markets in Asia, in contrast, are growing at a 7% annual rate.

DuPont is pursuing its main TiO2 business with the construction of a 200,000-metric-ton-per-year TiO2 plant in Dongying, China, due to start up in 2010.

One of the company's new initiatives has been the merchant sale of titanium tetrachloride. TiCl4, referred to as "tickle" in the industry, is an intermediate in chloride-based TiO2 plants. In the chloride process, black TiO2 ore is converted into TiCl4 using chlorine and carbon to remove color-forming impurities. The TiCl4 is then oxidized back into TiO2.

Credit: General Motors
Credit: General Motors

Additionally, TiCl4 is a raw material for Ziegler-Natta polymerization catalysts, pearlescent pigments, and the electronics material barium titanate. TiCl4 is also an intermediate in the most common method used to make titanium metal, the Kroll process. In this process, magnesium is used to reduce TiCl4 into titanium sponge for making ingot.

Owing to strong aerospace and automotive markets, IBMA forecasts that the titanium metal industry will grow at a rate of 10.3% annually from 2000 through 2015. As such, DuPont expects the industry's demand for TiCl4 to take off as well.

TRADITIONALLY, TITANIUM metal makers have processed their own ore into TiCl4. But with the upsurge in growth, producers want to bring on more metal capacity quickly and with less capital. Thus, they are looking to outsource their TiCl4 requirements, says Gerald J. Colamarino, DuPont's global business manager for TiCl4 and derivatives. "It makes more sense to just focus on what you do well, which is making the metal, and let somebody else focus on what they do well, which is making tickle," he says.

In October, DuPont said it would invest $30 million to install a TiCl4 purification unit at its TiO2 plant in New Johnsonville, Tenn. The plant will supply annually up to 45,000 metric tons of TiCl4 to a 10,000-metric-ton titanium metal plant that Allegheny Technologies is building in Rowley, Utah, with an expected start date sometime in 2008.

Because of such outsourcing, DuPont expects titanium metal to grow from its present 26% share of the merchant TiCl4 market today to about 45% by 2012. Over that same period, DuPont aims to make TiCl4 a business with $100 million in annual sales.

Fisher points out that DuPont is following TiO2 competitor Millennium Chemicals into the TiCl4 sector. "All the chloride producers sell some tickle, but only Millennium has a significant commercial business," he says.

DuPont is also working directly with titanium metal. The company is collaborating with Honeywell Electronic Materials to develop metal powders that can be pressed and sintered into metal parts.

The company wants to develop powder metallurgy routes like this to circumvent costly and wasteful processes whereby pieces of titanium metal are machined down into final parts. Michael T. Hyzny, venture manager for DuPont Titanium Technologies, says lower cost parts formed from powders may encourage the further penetration of titanium metal into markets like aerospace, sporting goods, and automotive.

Titanium's high reactivity is the reason that the industry so far hasn't taken advantage of powder metallurgy, a common practice in the steel industry. The key to the process is making the powders highly pure. DuPont installed powder equipment at Honeywell's Salt Lake City plant at the end of last year. Hyzny expects the first commercial sales within the next few months.

DuPont also is developing a novel process for making titanium metal. Along with Materials & Electrochemical Research Corp. (MER), the company received a $5.7 million grant from the U.S Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to scale up a technique for converting TiO2 directly into titanium metal. In the process, TiO2 is partially reduced with carbon to form an intermediate, which is reduced further via electrolysis to yield titanium powder.

DuPont engineers say the process may require less than half the energy of the Kroll process. In addition, it yields a titanium powder similar to the one that DuPont is working on with Honeywell. With advances like that in the offing, Hyzny is optimistic that DuPont will be able to take its titanium business well beyond it its roots in TiO2.

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