Ever drooled over a titanium mountain bike or set of golf clubs? Can't afford them? Materials chemists George Z. Chen and Derek J. Fray of Britain's Cambridge University aim to nudge prices down. The pair has invented a way of purifying costly titanium metal from inexpensive titanium dioxide by using a process that's faster, cheaper, and cleaner than current methods. The old way, dating from the 1940s, is a slow, multistep process involving chlorination, reduction, and subsequent electrolytic steps.
Chen's and Fray's process uses electricity to convert titanium dioxide into titanium in fewer steps. The new recipe can be run continuously, rather than in batches--a plus that will raise output and lower production costs. Indeed, although it isn't expected to become commercially viable for several years, the new recipe could shave the price of titanium from the current $3.50 per pound to nearer $1. But if the factories using the new process can scale up production, Fray believes that titanium could encroach on stainless steel to the extent of 10% of the current $5.8 billion market. The car industry would be one of the first to "take advantage of titanium's lightness, strength, and resistance to corrosion," Fray says.