TITANIUM – White, light and in India not so bright!

In the last blog, we talked about the metal Vanadium. It would be unfair now to move on without talking about its close pal, Titanium. If Vanadium was named after a Norse Goddess, Titanium was named after Titans, Roman gods, who were known for their giant-like appearance and their whiteness – yes, you read it right! – the Greek root of the word ‘Titan’ actually means white clay and so the literal meaning of Titan is ‘made or coated with white clay’. So just like the Gods it was named after, Titanium is strong, light and white. 

Titanium is as strong as steel but just half its weight. It is highly durable and corrosion resistant. For their strength and lightness titanium alloys find varied applications in the manufacture of defence and aerospace vehicles, ships, medical, sports equipment, and even fashion jewellery. This has earned Titanium the tags ‘space-age metal’ and ‘marine metal’. While steel is as strong as Titanium, it is a tad too heavy. Aluminium is lighter than Titanium but not corrosion resistant. The unique combination of high strength, light weight, high corrosion resistance, high melting point, and inertness make Titanium, unlike any other metal. So the Geological Survey of Survey in its report on Titanium has affirmed that there are no completely satisfactory substitutes for it.

In light of this wonder metal’s impressive physical attributes, isn’t it surprising then that nearly 90 % of the Titanium mined is used in it’s oxide form for it’s chemical property of whitening. Titanium oxide is a pigment that is white, opaque and safe even for consumption. It is used to impart a brilliant whiteness to paints, paper, plastic, toothpaste, cosmetics, milk and milk products and other food substances. Lead that has similar whitening properties  and was the dominant choice in the paint industry for nearly 2000 years had lost it’s precedence once the ill-effects of it’s toxicity was researched and let out. Titanium-di-oxide has comfortably usurped it’s position because not only is it brightly white, it is completely safe. So many products use Titanium now that the average person can never escape a dose of Titanium in his/her everyday consumption.

Alright, so we have established that Titanium is invaluable. But how much of it do we have in India and how is India poised in Titanium production? The good news is that India has 21% of the global deposits along its 7000 km coastline. But the not so good one is that out of the 7000 km about 4500 km is still unexplored. India’s installed capacity for Titanium sponge production is just 1%.and our industries rely mostly on imports. In developed countries like the US per capita consumption of Titanium is 5kg while in India it is just 0.15%.

Clearly, the superiority of Titanium over steel and other metals has been clearly established. And we also have the reserves. But why then is Titanium not used more extensively in India to replace every steel and aluminium structure that you see? Why are we still importing Titanium instead of producing it here? One answer is it that Titanium’s extraction process is difficult and costly. The stages in titanium mining include extracting ilmenite from beach sand and upgrading it to titanium slag, which then is purified into sponge and cast into ingots before being processed in mills to make various items. The price increases staggeringly after each step of value addition; if ilmenite is around $600 a tonne, titanium sponge could cost as much as $15,000 a tonne.

Secondly, the right of mining ores of Titanium like Ilmenite and Rutile from beach sands has been mostly with public players who had limitations in sparing the finances and acquiring the infrastructure to grow. The beach sand mineral industry was opened to private players only in the  1980s and they performed well and made India one of the top Ilmenite exporting countries in the world. But in recent years they have been plagued by stifling Government policies and bans. If the  production of preliminary ores like ilmenite and other rutile is getting tougher then it is needless to explain that the cost knowledge and technology intense process of producing Titanium sponges is beyond the capability of Indian companies as of now. Most of the titanium slag plants currently operate in Canada, South Africa, and Norway. Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Japan, too, produce slag, but their production is mainly for their own consumption. Now the Indian Government does realise the need to utilise the potential of our Titanium reserves but are unfairly prejudiced against opening the industry for private enterprise. State majors are trying to collaborate with each other through joint ventures to open Titanium producing units. IREL and NALCO are working on one. SAIL and Kerala State Industrial Development Corporate and Kerala Minerals and Metals have jointly opened a Titanium plant in Kerala. However, to catch up to the west in technology and know-how is still a difficult task considering the limited resources of these state players and the oligopolistic nature of the world titanium market. 

The logical solution is to provide a supportive environment that allows big private players to enter the fray. Beach sand Miners currently operating in the southern states and steel majors in the country like Jindal steel and Aditya Birla are interested. The focus of these players if given the opportunity would be in research and development to find ways for cheaper production of Titanium. A research effort by Cambridge University in Britain has come up with the ‘Metalysis ‘process to make the titanium extraction process much easier. Scientists are working towards making the idea viable for commercial production. Indian companies can take the cue and amp up their R& D efforts too.

 Mr Sajjan Jindal of Jindal Steel, clearly spelt out the opportunity that Titanium holds for India and how India must embrace it when he said this:

“A sound titanium dioxide and metal industry is essential to ensure optimum utilisation of these resources and to develop a vibrant industry. Large investment, research and development and know-how would be extremely essential to develop a world class titanium industry. Moreover, beach sand minerals have been kept out of the auctioning process in the Mines and Minerals Development Act. They need to be allowed as in the case of bulk minerals” 

Will the Government heed, act and usher the country into a dawn of the Titanium age?

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