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A novel method for extracting titanium, a metal highly valued for its light weight, high strength, corrosion resistance and biocompatibility, could lower its cost and make it more widely accessible, for example, for producing lighter car parts to improve fuel efficiency. The method, which significantly reduces the energy required to separate it from its tightly bound companion, oxygen, appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Zhigang Zak Fang and colleagues note that while titanium is the fourth most common metal in the Earth’s crust, the high-energy, high-cost method used to extract it prevents its use in broader applications. The metal’s light weight, strength, stability and corrosion resistance earned it valued roles on the Mars Odyssey mission, in wedding rings and in deep-sea submersibles. Titanium also could be used to significantly lighten and strengthen commercial products and materials. But currently, titanium is too expensive for widespread use. The most common technique, called the Kroll process, used to extract the metal from titanium oxide was invented in the 1930s and has undergone slight improvements. But by and large, the method, which requires temperatures over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, keeps prices for the metal high. Fang’s team decided to try out a new approach to make titanium more accessible.
The scientists discovered that they could eliminate the energy-intensive steps of the Kroll process. In the lab, they successfully tested a new series of reactions for isolating titanium that halves the temperature requirements of the conventional method and consumes 60 percent less energy.