Guppy Dhariwal, CEO of Metalysis, talks to AZoM about their innovative method of titanium powder production and further innovations in a new ‘Insights From Industry’ interview. Interview conducted by Gary Thomas.
GT: Could you please provide a brief introduction to the industry that Metalysis works within and outline the key drivers?
GD: Many of the production processes widely used today for specialist metals such as titanium, tantalum, rare earths and alloys have remained unchanged for over 60 years. The conversion processes of the ores to metals are often expensive and energy intensive, using harsh reagents requiring careful environmental control. The subsequent high cost of such specialist metals has limited their use in high volume markets till now.
The key drivers within this industry vary depending on the application the metal is used for. Titanium, for example, is used extensively by the aerospace industry where the focus is on light weight, high strength and corrosion resistant materials. Tantalum and many of the rare earths on the other hand are mainly used in the consumer electronics industries, where the drivers are often cost, reliability and security of supply. However, the common driver for the metal production sector is reducing energy consumption, reducing environmental impact and the production of a metal powder product. Metal powders can be used in advanced manufacturing techniques that dramatically reduce material wastage.
Metalysis is commercialising a metal powder production process with significant energy, cost and environmental benefits. In addition, Metalysis can deliver a powder product directly from the process which can be used in high-yield powder metallurgy techniques for component fabrication.
GT: Metalysis have developed a process of converting rutile sands directly into titanium metal powder – could you explain how this process works?
GD: The Metalysis process is a platform technology and so can be used with a number of different elements. A metal oxide, in this case rutile, is fed into a reactor, which contains molten calcium chloride. The process uses electrolysis, whereby an electric current is passed through the metal oxide to remove the oxygen and create a pure metal powder. Using electrolysis to create metal powder holds a number of advantages over traditional processes; toxic gases are not used, it is a single stage process and will be lower cost at commercial scale.
GT: How long has this process been in development? Could you explain some of the history behind this?
GD: It is a development from the FFC Process, originally developed in the late 1990s at the University of Cambridge. Metalysis has acquired all the relevant IP from Cambridge University, and has also consolidated it with IP acquired from Qinetiq and BHP Billiton. Metalysis has invested significant resources in order to take the process from the laboratory to commercial scale over the last few years. Since 2007 Metalysis have been scaling up their research cells into development cells which are the precursor to the new commercial scale plant currently being commissioned.
GT: What are rutile sands? How are these important in metal production?
GD: Rutile is a mineral that primarily consists of titanium dioxide, (TiO2) and can be found present in beach sands. Heavy mineral sands contain many ore deposits and valuable minerals, which are important to metal production and ceramics.
GT: What specific applications does titanium powder have?
GD: Titanium is a lightweight and non-corrosive metal and therefore can be usefully applied to many sectors. Its current prohibitively high cost has limited its application and it is mainly used in the aerospace industry. However, there are many applications across transportation, construction and clean energy where the drivers to reduce weight and emissions would make titanium an attractive option if it was cost-affordable. The Metalysis process can enable a variety of industries to benefit from the superior qualities of titanium at reduced cost.
GT: How does Metalysis endeavour to minimise environmental impact using this process?
GD: Metalysis can minimize environmental impact during both the production of metal powders and by offering cost-affordable products that can accelerate the use of powder metallurgy. Metalysis’ electrolysis process can deliver 35-40% energy savings depending on the metal being produced. In addition, the use of non-toxic reagents such as calcium chloride, minimize the potential for environmental damage. The metal powders can be used in advanced powder metallurgy processes that can minimize material wastage by up to 80% according to some users.
GT: What are some of the other benefits of this process?
GD: The capital cost of a Metalysis plant will be a fraction of that of a Kroll plant (typically $300m - $500m). The lack of any expensive reagents, relative simplicity of these reagents and by-products result in operating costs that will be considerably lower than the Kroll or Hunter processes. Importantly, unlike traditional metal production facilities, the equipment engineered by Metalysis is modular in nature, allowing producers to match investment to meet market demand.
GT: What effect will this development have on the metals industry in general?
GD: Metalysis has the potential to transform the metals industry by offering an energy efficient metal powder production process with a reduced environmental impact. The commercial scale plant being commissioned by Metalysis can deliver a unique, lower footprint production facility that can produce and recycle strategic metals at distributed sites worldwide.
GT: How does Metalysis produce Rare Earth Elements – do you think that this process can meet the growing demand for REEs?
GD: The growing demand in consumer electronics and green technologies is driving demand for many of the rare earth metals. Yet, there is evidence that supply is becoming increasingly restricted, despite these elements being of such vital economic importance.
The Metalysis process is suitable for the generation of the metals from their oxides for the majority of the rare earths.
GT: What are some of the innovative alloys that Metalysis can produce?
GD: The Metalysis process is a platform technology that can be applied to many of the elements within the periodic table. As the process is entirely solid-state, metals with significantly different densities or melting points can be alloyed unlike in conventional metallurgical methods. To date Metalysis have made alloys with a number of different elements, for example tungsten, tantalum and rare earth elements but have primarily focused on titanium alloys.
GT: How do you see metal production changing over the next 10 years?
GD: The importance of metals to both developing and developed economies will only grow. There is an increasing reliance on minor metals with unique material properties that are required for industries ranging from consumer electronics to clean energy. Some of these metals have seen volatile pricing due to both supply and demand fluctuations. Distributed and clean production of these metals will help mitigate some of these risks. The Metalysis process is envisaged to offer such a solution to many of the metals that are of growing importance to the world economy and climate.