Engineers at the University of Sheffield have developed a process to produce titanium aircraft parts, which they say is cheaper and more efficient than existing methods.
The Fast-forge process works in three steps. Titanium powder is first produced from rutile sand, a mineral commonly used as a pigment in paints, plastics and paper and to reflect UV light in sunscreen. A field-assisted sintering technology and a one step forging process is then used to produce the component.
Dr Martin Jackson, director of aerospace engineering and co-director of the Sheffield Titanium Alloy Research group, said: "Titanium is a light-weight and inherently corrosion resistant material, giving it performance, environmental and cost ownership advantages over high grade steels. But it is three times the cost of steel, with limited supply. The Fast-forge process shows how the benefits of titanium over steel can be achieved more efficiently and at lower cost."
The researchers added that the process will provide engineers with more design flexibility, and could lead to improved buy-to-fly ratios - currently for some aerospace components, 90% of the forged titanium alloy is machined away to waste material, said Sheffield University. Buy-to-fly ratios compare the cost of the raw materials of a component to its finished state in order to develop lighter, more fuel-efficient, aircraft.
Availability of titanium is key to the UK's aerospace manufacturing industry. Primary aerospace companies such as Rolls-Royce, Boeing and Airbus have long term supply agreements with titanium producers, such as US firm TIMET and Russian company VSMPO-AVISMA.
However, with growing demand for air travel across the globe, orders of civil aircraft, which are increasingly being manufactured from carbon composite fuselage and wing structures, are set to rise over the next decade. This will result in a corresponding increase in the need for titanium for fasteners and high strength forgings due to its compatibility with carbon.
With current world mill production capacity at approximately 130,000 tonnes, there will be restricted availability of titanium for both the aerospace and non-aerospace sectors unless additional sources of titanium are made available.
Partners in the Fast-forge project include metals company Metalysis, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, the Advanced Forming Research Centre and Safran Landing Systems.
Jean-Philippe Villain-Chastre, research and technology programme manager at aerospace supplier Safran Landing Systems, said: "We're highly interested in the prospects and benefits of such a breakthrough technology. In this project, we are bringing our machining, testing capabilities and expertise in qualifying aerospace grade materials to ensure that the titanium components which will be manufactured under this new process become a benchmark for the industry.