Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

In a first, a solar microgrid will directly power an industrial plant

Timet’s facility in West Virginia will use solar and batteries to make titanium products. The durable metal is used in everything from airplanes to pacemakers.
By Maria Gallucci

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Titanium watch cases (Binh Nguyen/Canary Media/IperionX)

For half a century, a sprawling lot in Ravenswood, West Virginia, was home to a giant aluminum smelter. But in 2009, Century Aluminum idled the facility, then permanently closed it six years later, and the 2,000-acre site became an empty expanse along the bending banks of the Ohio River.

Now, a different metal-making plant is getting underway on the property — and it will run primarily on renewable energy when it starts operations next year.

Titanium Metals Corporation, or Timet, recently began construction on a facility that will melt titanium to be shaped into parts for airplanes and other uses. Just next door, BHE Renewables is preparing to install arrays of solar panels and large battery systems, which will form a solar microgrid that connects to the titanium facility. Both companies are part of Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate run by Warren Buffett.

The project is perhaps the first to directly power a large industrial facility using solar-plus-storage technology. Developers say they hope the setup can serve as a model for future manufacturing plants — especially as the United States ramps up domestic production of electric cars, solar panels, batteries, and the steel, aluminum, and other essential materials used to make them.

The Ravenswood development demonstrates the ability of a microgrid to meet industrial customers’ demands, including … delivering renewables where and when they are needed, and driving economic revitalization through manufacturing backed by clean energy,” said Dan Winters, vice president of communications and public relations for BHE Renewables. 

An early illustration shows the proposed solar microgrid and titanium melt facility in Ravenswood, West Virginia. (BHE Renewables/Timet)

Titanium is a durable, highly corrosion-resistant metal that’s used in everything from industrial applications — airplane wings, hydrogen electrolyzers, nuclear waste tanks, military armor — to high-end consumer products like golf clubs, wristwatches, and iPhones. Many of us have titanium fused into our bodies, in the form of joint replacements, dental implants, and pacemakers.

Demand for titanium products is rising in the U.S., driven largely by the aerospace and defense industries. In 2023, the country imported a record-high 42,000 metric tons of primary titanium sponge” and titanium scrap metal — 35 percent more than in 2022, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

All that material then gets melted down in facilities like the one Timet is building in West Virginia.

Timet said its new plant will include two types of electricity-driven furnaces to generate intense heat for melting sponge and scrap. Initially, the melting plant is expected to need around 18 megawatts of power to operate, before ramping up to its full capacity of 106 MW by the end of 2027.

The solar microgrid will scale up in lockstep with Timet’s operations. When fully built, the BHE Renewables project will include a 106 MW solar array and a battery energy storage system with a capacity of 50 MW, or 260.5 megawatt-hours. The batteries will likely deploy lithium iron phosphate technology, a lower-cost chemistry that’s catching on for stationary storage.

The solar-plus-battery system can provide the consistent, reliable power supply” that melting furnaces require — and at a cost that’s comparable to traditional power sources,” said David Dugan, director of corporate communications for Timet’s parent company, Precision Castparts Corp.

A machine lifts a titanium ingot inside an existing manufacturing plant. (Precision Castparts)

Winters noted that building an on-site microgrid also improves time to power,” meaning the amount of time it takes to build and connect energy resources. Today, connecting solar, wind, and storage projects directly to the electrical grid typically takes more than three years, owing to the growing backlog of new energy projects seeking transmission connections.

Timet expects its new titanium facility to represent more than $500 million in total investment. BHE Renewables declined to disclose the cost of building the solar microgrid, though Winters said the system is eligible for investment tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act.

A mighty — and expensive — metal 

As a metal, titanium is twice as strong as aluminum and weighs nearly half as much as steel, while still having a similar strength.

But there’s a key reason why the world’s bridges, buildings, cars, and cargo ships aren’t awash with titanium. Transforming titanium minerals into a sturdy metal requires enormous amounts of electricity, which drives up the overall cost. So titanium is mainly used in applications for which there are no viable substitutes or in luxury goods.

Titanium should be used a lot more in our daily lives and in the industry” given its positive qualities, said Zhigang Zak Fang, an expert in titanium metallurgy and a professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. But it’s only a tiny fraction compared to steel, and that’s because [titanium] is very expensive.”

He estimated that a kilogram of primary titanium metal is about 20 times more expensive than an equivalent-quality steel, because it requires so much more energy to produce — though Fang and other scientists are working to invent less energy-intensive methods.

Titanium occurs in the earth’s crust mainly in the form of ilmenite, a heavy, opaque mineral that’s primarily mined in China, Mozambique, South Africa, and Canada. As a chemical element, titanium rapidly reacts with oxygen in the air, which creates the compound titanium dioxide. To separate the oxygen, companies use what’s known as the Kroll process.

To start, titanium ore is heated to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and reacted with chlorine gas and carbon-rich petroleum coke.” This step yields a liquid chemical, titanium tetrachloride, and also produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct (similar to how blast furnaces for ironmaking release CO2). The liquid chemical then undergoes another treatment using molten magnesium, which results in porous, spongelike pure titanium metal.

A clump of titanium sponge (Precision Castparts)

The sponge is later crushed and melted into ingots, coils, and bars — the types of products that Timet plans to make at its solar-powered Ravenswood plant — which are later shaped into finished products.

The United States hasn’t produced its own titanium sponge since 2020, when Timet closed the country’s last remaining production line in Henderson, Nevada, though the company still melts titanium there. Today, the U.S. imports most of its titanium sponge supply from Japan and, to a lesser extent, from Kazakhstan.

Competition from lower-cost imports and slumping metal prices globally made it difficult for U.S. producers to keep making sponge domestically. Rising energy costs also strained operations — as they have for other energy-intensive industries, including domestic aluminum production. When Century Aluminum finally shuttered its smelter in Ravenswood in 2015, the company cited high electricity prices as one of the main reasons.

Curbing costs and CO2 emissions from titanium 

Finding cleaner sources of electricity to power titanium facilities could help to control and potentially reduce costs associated with producing titanium products. But companies and researchers are also developing alternative techniques for making titanium that aim to dramatically reduce energy use and curb carbon dioxide emissions across the supply chain.

At the University of Utah, Fang developed a novel thermochemical process that uses hydrogen to separate titanium from oxygen at relatively low temperatures, and in a fraction of the time that conventional methods take. Notably, the process can use scrap metal to produce high-purity titanium, sidestepping the need for raw minerals and eliminating several other energy-intensive steps.

On a life-cycle basis, the hydrogen assisted metallothermic reduction (HAMR) process can reduce CO2 emissions from titanium production by anywhere from 50 to 95 percent, depending on the final product, when compared to conventional methods.

Fang’s research team received around $7 million in total federal funding to develop the HAMR process, including from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. The North Carolina–based company IperionX later acquired both the technology and a pilot plant in Utah, which can produce about 2 metric tons of titanium per year, mainly for prototypes.

IperionX is partnering with metal 3D printing technology leader SLM Solutions to make low-carbon recycled titanium powder at a new facility in Virginia. (IperionX)

Next month, IperionX plans to commission operations at its first commercial-scale facility in Halifax County, Virginia, which will process about 125 metric tons of titanium per year. The company received a $12.7 million grant from the Department of Defense for the new facility and will produce titanium products for potential customers including Ford, Lockheed Martin, and GKN Aerospace.

Dominic Allen, chief commercial officer for IperionX, said the company is working to reshore” U.S. titanium production in part for national security reasons. Today, China and Russia together control around 70 percent of the world’s market for primary titanium. IperionX also hopes that by making less energy-intensive — and therefore less expensive — titanium domestically, the metal can expand into new markets, potentially replacing aluminum and stainless steel in vehicles and building materials.

The titanium market is around $4 billion globally,” Allen said, adding that the global markets for aluminum and stainless steel are around $170 billion and $200 billion, respectively. So if you can just take a fraction of those markets just on price alone, it’s going to be enormous growth in the titanium market from where it is today.”

In the meantime, titanium manufacturers are expanding to serve the existing market for the high-strength, lightweight metal — and, in Timet’s case, using clean energy as they scale up.

Along with its new plant in West Virginia, Timet operates titanium-melting plants in Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Timet’s two main U.S. competitors, ATI Materials and Howmet Aerospace, also operate melting furnaces in Ohio, North Carolina, and Washington state.

In Ravenswood, the state-of-the-art” facility will allow Timet to address the growing demand for titanium products from the aerospace industry and other sectors, said Precision Castparts’ Dugan. The solar microgrid next door provides a unique opportunity … to increase our titanium capacity using a renewable energy source,” he added.

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.