Multi billion dollar titanium prospects

October 01, 2001

Australia has a golden opportunity to take a world lead in light metals, with the establishment of a multi-billion dollar industry in industrial-grade titanium.

The discovery of a vast mineral sands resource across the lower Murray-Darling Basin in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, has opened the way for a new metal industry to complement the boom metals aluminium and magnesium, says Dr Rod Hill, Chief of CSIRO Minerals.

"In CSIRO Minerals we are exploring five alternate technologies for the processing and extraction of titanium metal. We're quite confident it will be possible to reduce the cost of production by about a half," Dr Hill says.

The difference to Australia's bottom line could be staggering. The raw value of the resource is around $13 billion. If this were to be processed into titanium metal and other high-end products, the value would be closer to $300 billion.

The Murray Basin mineral sands are an artefact of Australia's geological ups-and-downs. They are ancient, fossilised beachlines which lie in what, six million years ago, was a great inland sea called the Moravian Gulf. This extended from Adelaide to Cobram and Horsham nearly to Broken Hill (see map).

Wave action over the millennia sorted and deposited ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite and xenotime into some of the richest deposits on earth. In total, an estimated 45 million tonnes.

"CSIRO is investigating five different technologies for processing these minerals which we believe can deliver a 50 per cent cut in titanium metal production costs," Dr Hill says.

The technologies include molten salts, fluidised beds, plasmas,and vapour-phase reduction. Only commercial trials can decide which of the technologies will ultimately prove the most efficient and environmentally sound.

The "Holy Grail", as Dr Hill puts it, is to go from ilmenite to titanium in a single step, replacing the current multi-stage process.

The real opportunity, as he sees it, is to make titanium a staple construction metal for the transport, building, water, chemical and marine industries.

"Titanium is seen as a rather rare and expensive metal. That's because it is mainly used in the aerospace industry, and consequently has to be produced to very, very high standards of purity to meet testing and safety standards.

"The big opportunity is to produce an industrial grade titanium suitable for use in cars, buildings, chemical and desalination plants and ships. To make titanium a "household metal" like aluminium and more recently, magnesium.

"We should remember that, in the 1920s, aluminium was costlier than gold, and nobody knew how to treat or process it. Titanium is in a similar position today.

"Titanium has considerable advantages over other metals. It is 43% lighter than steel, tougher and more flexible than steel and far more corrosion resistant."

The metal industry is put off by the expensive price tag. But Dr Hill says that, on a volume rather than a weight-for-weight basis, and taking into account its superior corrosion resistance, titanium is competitive with steel.

"Australia has potentially a strong competitive advantage in titanium production. We have secure high-grade raw material supplies, cleaner, greener, cheaper processing methods, high levels of skills and the opportunity to develop new products for many end uses. "

A titanium metal industry could also help revive the regional economy of a large area of southeastern Australia, creating new jobs and opportunities, he says.
More information:

Dr Rod Hill, CSIRO Minerals
+61 (0)3 9545 8600

Ian Johnson, CSIRO Minerals
+61 (0)3 9545 8878
+61 (0)418 314 009

CSIRO Australia

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