For over fifty years, titanium has been the material of choice for medical and dental professionals. Its remarkable strength-to-weight ratio, high fatigue limit and corrosion resistance set it apart from other metals like stainless steel.
Titanium’s high corrosion resistance and biocompatibility are particularly critical in the medical industry, where its durability and quality make it suitable for long-term applications inside the human body—such as implants.
Despite its superior qualities, titanium’s high cost and traditionally unsustainable production methods have prevented its use in broader applications. Global supply chain strains and a global dependence on foreign nations, including Russia and China, for titanium metal feedstocks place further limits on the widespread application of titanium.
However, groundbreaking new titanium technologies can potentially offer lower-cost and more sustainable alternatives to traditional production methods. These new technologies are paving the way for titanium’s increased application across advanced industries, including the medical and dental industries. Using lower-cost, U.S. produced titanium to make more durable, longer-lasting medical and dental devices translates to lower costs and increased efficiency across medical systems—making access to healthcare more affordable.
While other materials, such as silicone and polyethylene, have been considered for use in medical devices, more than 70 percent of surgical implant devices and 95 percent of orthopedic implants are made from metal due to its durability and strength. Titanium metal and its alloys are preferred materials in hip and joint implants, spinal implants, and other implants due to its favorable differentiating factors.
But what sets titanium apart as the preferred metal for medical applications?
Titanium remains the metal of choice in the medical industry primarily because of its high biocompatibility.
Unlike other metals, titanium is non-toxic to the human body, meaning that it can remain in contact with living tissue without harming it. Medical professionals have observed that patients with titanium implants have less of an immune response than when other foreign materials are introduced to the human body, as the human body is more readily able to recognize titanium. Furthermore, titanium is non-ferromagnetic, meaning that medical titanium does not react to the potent magnetic fields in MRI machines, allowing individuals with titanium implants to safely undergo MRI examinations without adverse effects.
Titanium also possesses a high capacity for osseointegration, meaning that it can bind with bone without harming living tissue. Osseointegration bonding is critical for securing medical implants to the body’s soft tissue; if bonding fails, there is increased risk for bacterial infection and inflammation, which can cause displacement of the implant inside the body.
While medical devices and implants must be adaptable to conditions inside the human body, they must also be durable enough to last for an extended period of time. Replacement usually requires surgery, which can lead to further health complications—no matter how standard the procedure is. Titanium’s excellent corrosion resistance increases its durability and extends the longevity of devices and implants, and the longer the implant or device remains secure and intact, the better the health outcomes for the patient.
Medical tools made of titanium metal and their alloys, such as surgical implements and other lab equipment, also benefit from this durability. Medical tools undergo a significant amount of wear and tear over their lifetimes, requiring facilities to spend significant amounts of money to maintain a robust supply of replacement equipment. Titanium-based medical tools can withstand repeated sterilization without corroding or rusting, thereby lowering the need for replacement and overall operational costs for medical facilities.
In addition to its durability, titanium boasts the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any material currently used in medical devices and instrumentation.
Lighter than steel without compromising on strength, titanium is the optimal choice for implants inside the body, especially for implants that require flexible movement such as hip and knee replacements.
Producing titanium metal through the current industry standard Kroll process is expensive and not environmentally sustainable due to its high energy consumption and use of harsh chemicals. Industrial plants that use the Kroll process are expensive to commission, operate and maintain. Additionally, titanium parts are typically produced using subtractive manufacturing methods, resulting in excessive waste—most of which cannot be efficiently recycled. These factors contribute to the high cost and large carbon footprint of titanium production, which inhibit its wider use.
However, emerging titanium production technologies have the potential to remove the cost and environmental sustainability barriers to production, and offer titanium as a viable substitute for steel, aluminum, and other carbon-intensive metals.
IperionX, a developer of a U.S.-based sustainable titanium supply chain, holds a range of proven, patented technologies to produce high-quality, low-to-net-zero carbon, sustainable titanium metal products.
IperionX’s breakthrough titanium technologies enable the cheaper, cleaner production of titanium—transforming the domestic production of titanium by using less energy and enabling lower costs—all within a sustainable, closed-loop, circular supply chain.
Developed in partnership with the University of Utah and the U.S. Department of Energy, the Hydrogen Assisted Metallothermic Reduction (HAMR) technology uses hydrogen to destabilize the naturally occurring titanium-oxygen bonds, which allows titanium dioxide to be directly reduced by magnesium to produce titanium metal powders. Not only does IperionX’s HAMR process streamline current industry standards, but it also results in significantly higher yields compared to the incumbent Kroll process. Further, the HAMR process is the only known technology which can use 100 percent recycled scrap titanium metal as a feedstock, differentiating it from the Kroll process which generates excessive waste.
The HAMR process is also capable of producing spherical titanium powder for use in 3D printing. 3D printing technologies are currently employed in the medical industry to create custom implants, prostheses, and other life-saving devices. This disruptive manufacturing technology has transformed health outcomes by allowing for the faster, lower-waste, and lower-cost production of complex medical devices that are perfect anatomical matches for patients. Titanium amplifies the benefits of medical 3D printing, due to its high strength-to-weight ratio, biocompatibility in the human body and ability to be shaped into complex designs.
However, recent testing has confirmed that the titanium metal powder produced through IperionX’s HAMR process meets the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) Ti-64 Grade 5 specifications, one of the key qualifications for use in medical devices. Proven new technologies like the HAMR process can expand the usage of titanium powders in medicine, transforming the production and implementation of life-saving devices.
William Kroll, creator of the current standard titanium production process, predicted that his method would eventually be replaced by a more efficient technology in the future—that future is now. IperionX’s innovative technology has the capacity to bring titanium into the mainstream and transform manufacturing across our advanced industries, including the medical industry.
Editor’s Note: Anastasios “Taso” Arima is the Founder and CEO of IperionX, a leader in developing U.S.-based sustainable critical mineral and critical material supply chains. Taso has a long history of identifying company-making projects and in the exploration, development, financing, and permitting of projects. He attended the University of Western Australia where he studied Commerce and Engineering.