Titanium -- It's strong. It's light. It's long-lasting. But is it really the superhero of metals?


Thursday, October 5th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


By Will Pry / The Dallas Morning News

Edward Rosenberg's love affair with titanium goes back 20 years to a time when it seemed as if the only things made out of the metal were spy planes and space probes.

Consumer demand for titanium was low. Ignorance was high.

"The first time I introduced it in one of my products, someone says to me, 'Right, titanium. That's the stuff that killed Superman,'" says Mr. Rosenberg, whose Spectore Corp. sells titanium jewelry and gifts. "The next guy says, 'You're not allowed to use that. It's radioactive.'

"I had to tell people, 'It's not kryptonite. It's not plutonium.'"

These days, titanium is everywhere: flashlight batteries, compact binoculars, professional cameras and high-powered loudspeakers. It's in car parts, golf clubs, pacemakers and hip replacements.

The same metal that shielded Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules now is available in a carrying case to protect a PalmPilot.

Clearly, the identity crisis is over.

"We're on the verge of seeing an explosion," says David Yoho, regional manager for Titanium Industries in Chicago. "Every day of the week, someone is working with it and trying to find new ways to use it."

Here's why:

• Titanium's strength-to-weight ratio is far better than that of steel and aluminum, meaning anything made from it – such as a casing on a camera or a pair of binoculars – will be less likely to get dented and easier to carry.

"If you use a laptop computer, I've got a question for you: Heavy, isn't it?" Mr. Rosenberg says. "Imagine if it were made with titanium."

Actually, some already are. IBM's new ThinkPad X Series laptop computers are protected by a titanium composite cover and weigh as little as 3.1 pounds.

As a core ingredient, titanium is as strong as steel at almost half the weight and has a lower density than copper or iron.

Thus, titanium components for electronic devices or machinery can be made smaller and lighter than can other metals.

• Titanium is practically nonmagnetic, which makes it a good choice for use in electronic equipment housings because electromagnetic interference is lessened.

Companies that make loudspeakers with titanium tweeters, drivers and woofers trumpet the metal's ability to reduce distortion.

Titanium alloys also are being tested for use in hard disk drives and data-storage materials.

"All of that leads it into a nice role in the industry," says Mike Metz, director of marketing for Timet, a titanium supplier. "Its nonmagnetic qualities are going to lead it down many electronic roads."

• A reactive metal, titanium forms a natural oxide film that protects it from corrosion so objects made with it won't rust easily. If the protective film is scratched or damaged, it repairs itself in the presence of oxygen.

It stands up well to acids, water and body fluids, making it ideal for medical uses such as joint replacements and heart-valve casings because it lasts longer than other materials.

"Chances are someone in your family has titanium in them," Mr. Yoho says. "Everyone has an aunt who's had a knee or a hip replaced, and 90 percent of those are titanium."

In June, Houston-based MicroMed Technology saw the American debut of its MicroMed DeBakey Ventricular Assist Device, a heart pump encased completely in titanium.

"More and more implantable devices are being created to replace or supplant different organs," says Travis Baugh, MicroMed vice president and chief financial officer. "You don't want to have to go back in to replace components. That alone makes it worth it to use titanium."

Long-term use

• Although copper-based alloys have higher thermal conductivity and better heat-transfer efficiency, titanium alloys are better for long-term use, according to the International Titanium Association.

Eveready's Energizer e{+2} batteries use a titanium compound that contains an additive designed to allow electrons to flow more freely, improving energy performance and conductivity.

The result is a battery that is believed to last, in some cases, twice as long as a standard alkaline battery.

Titanium's flexibility and dramatic appearance also inspire designers hoping to build the perfect tech toy. RhinoSkin's Slider Hardcase for Palm devices is sleek and stylish, and – for prices starting at $100 – will protect hand-held computers from scratches and probably prevent them from burning up should they ever re-enter the atmosphere.

"If I went through every product I could think of, I couldn't think of anything that wouldn't be better with titanium," Mr. Rosenberg says. "Except for in food."

Such optimism signals a big change in titanium's identity. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, titanium was more or less confined to medical, industrial and aerospace uses.

In 1957, 96 percent of the 12 million pounds of U.S. mill titanium was used in aerospace technology, according to the International Titanium Association. By 1997, shipments had surpassed 60 million pounds, and the amount used outside the aerospace industry had risen to 40 percent.

But titanium's future in consumer products may not be entirely golden. Even with its supermetal characteristics, titanium's armor has a few chinks.

Issue of cost

Though it isn't rare at all – titanium is the fourth-most-abundant metal on the planet – it isn't cheap, either.

The same qualities that make it desirable for use in technology-oriented products can also make it more difficult to produce and shape than other metals.

"It's murder to work with," Mr. Rosenberg says. "It eats up machine tools. It doesn't like to be stamped. You see a beautiful woman and you know it's going to be heartache. ... This is what working with titanium is like.

"But the end result is magic."

Mr. Yoho disagreed, saying the titanium industry has found easier ways to work with and shape the metal. The high cost, he says, is due simply to the precious quality, but it pays for itself in longevity.

"It has twice the cost upfront, but it'll last longer," he says. "It's hard to beat as a material because of its characteristics. Long-term, it's going to be a huge metal for commercial and industrial uses because it's hard to beat what it provides."

Another potential drawback for titanium is consumer skepticism. Titanium looks sharp and sounds sexy, but is it worth the cost in every application? Titanium hip implants may be medically justified, but what about titanium eyeglass frames, money clips or ballpoint pens?

"There are cases where it truly is a design advantage, and then there are cases where people make things out of it just because they can," Mr. Metz, the Timet marketing director, says. "The places where it's more fashion-oriented will tend not to last. The places where it's more a part of the design will last a long time."

Selling point

Put more simply, some salespeople are using the titanium name because of its image. Perhaps the best illustration that titanium is becoming less of a mystery metal is its ranking with credit card marketers.

Remember when gold was the card to have? Now it's titanium. It sounds way cooler than the gold card and stronger, more secure than even platinum. But let the charge-happy buyer beware: Titanium credit cards run up the same debt as gold cards do.

And the titanium card, some say, is a case of marketers abusing the metal's good name.

"A lot of people are just using the buzz of it," Mr. Rosenberg says. "I'm afraid it's going to get exploited. Some people are just going to ride it for as far as it can go. ... But I really think we can write some chapters in metal history. The big evolution is going to come as people design to the material rather than designing the material to the product.

"That's when we're going to see the really crazy stuff."

That next wave of design trends involving the metal may be a byproduct of the enormous market for titanium golf clubs, Mr. Metz says.

Even the most casual golfers and weekend hackers clamor for titanium drivers because the metal's light weight means the head of the club – along with the coveted "sweet spot" – can be made bigger than on other clubs.

As the craze caught on in the mid-1990s, the industry began building machines that could mold titanium into the shape of a golf club easily. Now that titanium clubs are commonplace, Mr. Metz says, those machines may be put to more enterprising uses.

"They're designed to make anything they can that's fist-sized," he says. "More and more, I think you'll continue to see it in common, everyday things."