Saturday, April 13, 2024

A Technological and Muck-Raking Appendix to Postblogging Technology, December Titanium


By Anynobody - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Titanium is, we keep hearing, going to be one of the major structural elements in the North American XF-108 Rapier supersonic interceptor. We hear a great deal about how much of it is being used in the DC-7; and while the XF-108 will be cancelled, fifteen A-12s, 3 YF-12s and  34 SR-71s will fill some of the gap. 

Another thing we here today is that a shortage of American titanium led to the surreptitious import of  Russian titanium during the 1960s, so that the Soviet Union was spied upon by planes made with the Motherland's titanium. And as if that weren't enough to make for a story about oopsy-themed metals instead of planes, we have the sour suggestion that the real reason America is dragging its feet over titanium is that all that newly-built magnesium infrastructure would go to waste, and this finally makes the story of "Mag-Thor," or magnesium-thorium alloy, the slightly radioactive  structural metal so widely used in the early years of the Space Race, but mostly on "New Look" weapon systems like the Bomarc missile, one of the great cringing embarrassments of Canadian industrial and political history of the last century, make sense. For Dow-Corning to make adequate excuses for the titanium shortage, there had to be a competitive magnesium product. 

The first thing to say about this is the same thing I have had occasion to say about tin: When for some reason you don't want to mine something, you make it about ore bodies. Thus we hear that the reason America had to sneak its titanium out from behind the Iron Curtain was that Russia had the mines. Nothing you can do about that. 

This is bullshit. Titanium is the sixth most common metal and the ninth most common element  in the Earth's crust, making up 0.63% of it by weight. Titanium ores, including rutile and ilmenite, have long been used as a pigment, and if you care like I do about prewar aeronautical dope suppliers, it is the "Titan" in "Titanine." Not just the company that petitioned Miles Aircraft into (a well-deserved) bankruptcy! We've heard about Florida's ilmenite and rutile as the exciting future of the American paint industry, and a Google search turned up this old USGS report coonfirming the abundance of ilmenite in dune deposits there.

 By this time I'm so used to Republican senators of the 83rd Congress being pains in the ass that I tuned out the first dozen or so references to Senator George Malone (R, NE)'s lonely (and failed) campaign to ensure that America actually hit the target for 22,000 tons of titanium  in 1956. The two-term Senator from Nebraska had a point, doesn't get the credit he deserves. 

Titanium has several virtues that recommend it to the aviation industry, as well as the spectacular combustibility that recommends it to the Ansul Company and its chemical fire extinguishers. It is as strong as some steel alloys but less dense, is corrosion resistant, and has a very high melting point. As with aluminum, the strength/density relationship is such that it is an appropriate replacement for steel wherever steel is used in thin load-bearing sections, such as aeronautical skinning, particularly areas exposed to heat, and turbine blades. The DC-7 might have been a wet squib of a plane, but that "first use of titanium" to save "200 pounds per plane," seems imprinted on the aviation popular consciousness. It's also not magnetic, which was the decisive reason for building the ambitiously eccentric Alfa-class nuclear submarine hull out of it. (The Russians having been as convinced as the Western press by the sly Anglo-Saxon disinformation campaign promoting MAD over passive sonar as the key to submarine detection.)

Misdirected as it might have been, the Russians at least learned a lot about the extremely spicy business of welding titanium, which must be done in an inert atmosphere, not the craziest aspect of submarines using a lead-bismuth coolant reactor. (There seems to be something to be said for this "Communism" stuff if you're going by the "cool gadget" metric. Too bad about the computing side.)  

It also gave them something to do with the titanium, since it turned out that demand never quite managed to hit projected targets due to the general retreat from the supersonic regime. It is interesting to see ICI push boldly into a modernised version of the sodium ("Hunter") process in 1955, only for the Welsh Hunter process plant to be casting around for new business in 1958 in the wake of the Sandys Report and the cancellation of assorted high speed next generation aircraft.  It's okay, though. I'm sure there's no market for a British Mach 2 delta wing fighter! (It turns out that the Waunarlwydd plant is still operational under American ownership, although it doesn't sound as though production meets British demand.) 

By RuthAS for Wikipedia. Lot more to say about this plane. 


I linked to, and even extracted from, a pdf of a sanitised, declassified CIA report on "The Soviet Titanium Industry and Its role in the Military Buildup" in the first installment of December postblogging, but who  has time to click through these days? It is an interesting read, so that's where this link goes. Be warned, however, that the sanitised portion seems to be the part referred to in the title as the role of the industry in "the military buildup." 

As of 1984, Soviet titanium metal production was estimated at 71,000t, five times the 13,000t produced in the United States, which was barely ahead of Japan at 11,000t, with the UK at that point retaining 2000t annual production. Titanium has been displaced from many of its early Cold War roles by composites. It does, however, retain  its high heat resistance, which makes it idea for supersonic applications. Since we've decided not to build supersonic airplanes (sad face), that mainly means missiles, which raises the interesting question of what happens to titanium when there's lots of heat, prompt X-rays and even free neutrons whizzing around, which, it turns out, DARPA was looking into in the Eighties.  (Perhaps following a line of inquiry related to ABM defence.) It, indeed, turns out that titanium alloys are very important to the current generation of ballistic missiles

Which brings me back to Senator Malone's question. Was the American titanium production buildup passively sabotaged by Dow-Corning and other magnesium making interests? This is a classic "impossible to say for sure" chin-striker at one level; at another I am fascinated by the deployment of a familiar tactic from the passive-resistance-to-climate-change-amelioration proposals arsenal: We shouldn't drop too much money on Kroll Process plants when a newer and better method for making titanium might come along any day!

 I'm not a big fan of Waiting for Godot as a play. That might be because I had to read it in freshman English, or it might be a principled resistance to Beckett's themes. We are all Post-Modernist now, etc. etc. But as a metaphor, it's brilliant. (Leaving aside my strong impression that Beckett thought that the waiting was good for us.) Why do anything now when something better is sure to come along some day?

At least it's a better philosophy than "Cut everything, dump the money into tax cuts, and then persuade the Americans to give us a replacement in lieu of rent on air bases." 

1 comment:

  1. Building submarines from titanium was pioneered by the (aka Papa class) in the mid-1960s