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Researchers create new ‘designer’ titanium alloys using 3D printing

Led by RMIT University and the University of Sydney, in collaboration with Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in Melbourne, and Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence

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A team of researchers led by RMIT University and the University of Sydney, in collaboration with Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in Melbourne, and Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence has created a new class of titanium alloys that are strong and not brittle under tension, by integrating alloy and 3D printing process designs.

The breakthrough, published in the journal Nature, could help extend the applications of titanium alloys, improve sustainability, and drive innovative alloy design. The discovery holds promise for a new class of more sustainable high-performance titanium alloys for applications in aerospace, biomedical, chemical engineering, space, and energy technologies.

Lead researcher, Distinguished Professor Ma Qian from RMIT’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing in the School of Engineering, said the team embedded circular economy thinking in their design – creating great promise for producing their new titanium alloys from industrial waste and low-grade materials.

Researchers create new ‘designer’ titanium alloys using 3D printing, led by RMIT University and the University of Sydney.
Team members Dr. Tingting Song and Professor Ma Qian (left to right) with a titanium alloy part created with the laser 3D printer that the team used at RMIT University. (Note: this is not an alloy part that the team made for this research.) Credit: RMIT.

New titanium alloys

The team’s titanium alloys consist of a mixture of two forms of titanium crystals, called alpha-titanium phase and beta-titanium phase – each corresponding to a specific arrangement of atoms. Since 1954, these alloys have been produced primarily by adding aluminum and vanadium to titanium.

The research team investigated the use of oxygen and iron – two of the most powerful stabilizers and strengtheners of alpha- and beta-titanium phases – which are abundant and inexpensive.

According to Qian, two challenges have hindered the development of strong and ductile alpha-beta titanium-oxygen-iron alloys through conventional manufacturing processes. “One challenge is that oxygen – described colloquially as ‘the kryptonite to titanium’ – can make titanium brittle, and the other is that adding iron could lead to serious defects in the form of large patches of beta-titanium,” said Qian. “A key enabler for us was the combination of our alloy design concepts with 3D printing process design, which has identified a range of alloys that are strong, ductile, and easy to print [using Laser Directed Energy Deposition (L-DED)].”

According to the team, the attractive properties of these new alloys that can rival those of commercial alloys are attributed to their microstructure.

“This research delivers a new titanium alloy system capable of a wide and tunable range of mechanical properties, high manufacturability, enormous potential for emissions reduction, and insights for materials design in kindred systems,” said Simon Ringer, co-lead researcher, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor at the University of Sydney. “The critical enabler is the unique distribution of oxygen and iron atoms within and between the alpha-titanium and beta-titanium phases… We’ve engineered a nanoscale gradient of oxygen in the alpha-titanium phase, featuring high-oxygen segments that are strong, and low-oxygen segments that are ductile – allowing us to exert control over the local atomic bonding and so mitigate the potential for embrittlement.”

Researchers create new ‘designer’ titanium alloys using 3D printing, led by RMIT University and the University of Sydney.
Team members Shenglu Lu, Alan Jones, Tingting Song, Ma Qian, and Milan Brandt (left to right) in front of the laser 3D printer that the team used at RMIT University. Credit: RMIT.

Potential applications

Lead author Dr. Tingting Song, RMIT Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, said the team is “at the start of a major journey, from the proof of our new concepts here, towards industrial applications… There are grounds to be excited – 3D printing offers a fundamentally different way of making novel alloys and has distinct advantages over traditional approaches,” she said. “There’s a potential opportunity for industry to reuse waste sponge titanium-oxygen-iron alloy, ‘out-of-spec’ recycled high-oxygen titanium powders, or titanium powders made from high-oxygen scrap titanium using our approach.”

“Oxygen embrittlement is a major metallurgical challenge not only for titanium, but also for other important metals such as zirconium, niobium, and molybdenum and their alloys,” said co-lead author Dr. Zibin Chen, who joined Hong Kong Polytechnic University from the University of Sydney in the later stages of the collaboration. “Our work may provide a template to mitigate these oxygen embrittlement issues through 3D printing and microstructure design.”

Support for this research

According to Professor Ringer, the team’s work benefited from sustained, targeted investment in research infrastructure from national and state governments and universities. “In many ways, this work showcases the power of Australia’s national collaborative research infrastructure strategy and sets the scene for extending this strategy into the realm of advanced manufacturing,” he said.

The Australia Research Council (ARC) through the Discovery Program and the Training Centre in Surface Engineering for Advanced Materials (SEAM) funded and supported this research.

The team acknowledged support from the Australia–US Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative program supported by the Australian Government; The Hong Kong Polytechnic University; the State Key Laboratories in Hong Kong from the Innovation and Technology Commission of the Government; and Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence for its Simufact DED solution used in the L-DED process design.

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