Metallurgists break through the rare-elements barrier
The people who build jet engines have long dreamed of the day when they could make them without chrome, a "strategic metal" the US today must import from places like the Soviet Union and southern Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, that day may not be far off.
"We have made what we consider a breakthrough in metals technology," says Jerry Broening, a spokesman for Pratt & Whitney, the firm that has developed a way to make stainless steel without chromium and jet engine parts without chromium and cobalt.
Pratt & Whitney is one of several companies in a growing "synterials industry" designed to ease the strategic materials shortage in much the way the synfuels industry developed out of the energy crisis.
Although still at the laboratory testing stage, some rather large corporations and the US government are hoping it will prove possible to create replacements for the major strategic metals or minerals.
At the moment the United States is almost totally dependent on imports to supply materials such as cobalt, chromium, platinum, columbium, tantalum, and manganese.
For many of these imports, the US looks to either South Africa or the USSR. For example, 91 percent of the platinum used is imported from South Africa, the USSR, or the UK. Platinum is important for use in the communications industry. And 97 percent of all the cobalt used in this country is imported, 42 percent of it from Zaire. Cobalt is used in making jet engine parts.
In part, because of US dependence on these strategic materials, the Reagan administration has authorized the General Services Administration to spend $100 million to buy 15 materials for the National Defense Stockpile.
However, notes Dr. George F. Mechlin, vice-president of research and development for Westinghouse Electric Corporation, "The stockpile by itself is not an entirely satisfactory anser . . . stockpiles are an emergency ameliorant. They don't address the long-term problem."
To address that long-term problem, both the US government and several corporations are working on either synthetics or substitutes for raw materials. Among the developments are:
* Westinghouse Electric Corporation is working on eight "synterials" that could replace strategic materials. Some of the materials Westinghouse's researchers are working with include reinforced plastics, superconducting alloys , and high temperature and electrically active ceramics.
* The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland is working on ways to develop metal alloys using a lower level of strategic metals and alternate materials. NASA has subcontracted some of the work out to Columbia University, Purdue, and Case Western Reserve as well as Special Metals Corporation in New Hartford, N.Y., and Teledyne Corporation of Toledo, Ohio.