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Titanium is the stuff aircrafts are made of, at least the important parts. It’s an obvious material choice for aircraft engines and airframes with its high strength-to-weight ratio and resistance to corrosion. However, shaping the metal into complex shapes can be expensive. Using a heavier, easier-to-craft metal can be just as expensive because adding weight to an aircraft design means increasing annual fuel costs.
With titanium powder-producing technology developed at Ames National Lab and licensed by startup Iowa Powder Atomization Technologies (IPAT) as part of America’s Next Top Energy Innovator Challenge, the aerospace industry can have their parts more cheaply and the operational cash savings, too.
Many complex aircraft parts can’t be fabricated cost-effectively or, in some cases, at all with traditional methods. To machine a part means shaping it from a solid block of titanium, which often leaves 90 percent of the original block as waste. With casting, manufacturers pour molten metal into molds. But, titanium tends to react with the materials used to form the molds. So, there needs to be another way – that method is called machine injection molding.
Machine injection molding (MIM) is a choice method for manufacturers when they need to mass-produce complex shapes to precise specifications. To understand injection molding (and where the powder comes into play), think about Legos and the way they are made. Legos are manufactured by plastic injection molding (very similar to MIM). Granulated plastic is melted and then injected into Lego-shaped molds. The hot plastic cools and solidifies, creating the Lego – precisely, quickly and efficiently. The same goes for aircraft parts, except you use powder titanium, like the stuff produced by IPAT.
The key to the most successful titanium powder will be the shape and cost. The powder granules should ideally be spherical (the more perfect the sphere, the better), so that the finished product is strong and consistent in density. It also needs to be produced inexpensively. Among the reasons IPAT ranked so highly in America’s Next Top Energy Innovator Challenge is that their product and process promise both these developments – a true innovation in the field. With the gas atomization process they licensed from Ames, they can create the titanium powder 10 times more efficiently than other methods on the market, which means that the material is cheaper for manufacturers.
The IPAT innovation can be used in more than just airplanes. For example, with the ability to cheaply fabricate small, precise parts, amputees will find new mobility because their prosthetics are light, but strong.
All this is thanks to a gas atomization technology developed at Ames National Laboratory and licensed to IPAT as part of America’s Next Top Energy Innovator.