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Is there enough titanium to support the growth of electric vehicle production in the US?
Yes. Titanium is an in-demand material for electric vehicles, but with current design and available technologies, it has little supply risk.
June 29, 2022
In car manufacturing, titanium is primarily used within the exhaust system of gasoline-powered vehicles and can be found in engine parts such as connection rods, engine valves, and alloy springs. In electric vehicle (EV) batteries, titanium is also used in lithium-titanium anodes which can charge and discharge quickly. They are key components in many EV batteries, and Tesla electric vehicles also have a titanium underbody shield that protects against battery fires.
Titanium is considered a critical mineral by the US Geological Society,1 but not because of its use in vehicles. Most titanium—about 95%—is made into titanium dioxide, a pigment that keeps anything from paints to plastics white.2 When it comes to vehicle production, there’s a strong market for titanium, but demands aren’t nearly as high as they are for other metals used in EV production, like cobalt and lithium, which are expected to have a 37-fold and 18-fold increase in demand, respectively, by 2030.3 One 2020 study evaluated supply risk for 52 mineral commodities that are critical to the US manufacturing sector and found that supply risk for titanium is fairly low, but economic vulnerability—which is a consequence of supply disruption—is much higher.4
Even though titanium supply can keep up with current EV demand, that could quickly change, as it has in the past for other materials, says Karan Bhuwalka, an MIT Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering who studies material use and supply risk in electric and conventional vehicles.
“I think a lot of people did not foresee cobalt, nickel, and lithium being demanded at the quantities they're being demanded at right now,” he says, adding that technological advances could rapidly shift how much titanium is needed.
EV vehicle demand is soaring. Sales increased a walloping 67% between 2019 and 2020 and are expected to continue increasing as carmakers release new EV models and price points become more accessible.5 Demand for titanium could increase even more if titanium-dioxide batteries, which charge faster and last longer than the lithium-ion batteries currently used in electric vehicles, begin to replace their lithium-ion counterparts.
The world has lots of titanium reserves to meet this demand, Bhuwalka says, but accessing them hinges on smooth trade relations. The United States only produces 4% of global titanium materials and is heavily dependent on imports to meet domestic needs.6 Most titanium comes from India, Mozambique, Australia, and China, which has the world’s largest supply—230,000 metric tons as of January 2022.7 (China is also a leading producer of several other mineral commodities that are crucial to EV production, including nickel and graphite,4 and dominates the world market in EV sales and battery production.8) Within these countries, a small number of companies control the titanium supply chain. Should international trade agreements change—for instance, in the wake of geopolitical turmoil or because of human rights violations within the titanium mining and production line—the United States might no longer be able to meet the domestic need for materials like titanium, Bhuwalka explains.
Bhuwalka’s research analyzes supply chain risks. For example, one supply chain risk is climate change, which intensifies natural hazards like wildfires, floods, and extreme weather that could pose risks to the titanium supply. In 2021, a massive winter freeze in Texas shuttered factories and helped trigger a global semiconductor shortage that slowed the production of chip-dependent cars. As climate change drives environmental changes ranging from heatwaves and stronger storms to sea level rise, the titanium supply chain may also be affected in unpredictable ways, Bhuwalka says.
But, he adds, that supply risk can also be ameliorated by recycling potential. For example, titanium lasts a long time—upwards of 20 years. And because titanium is naturally resistant to chemical erosion, it can be recycled over and over again, and there’s an economic incentive to do so, as recycling is cheaper and less dangerous than mining new material. More than 90% of titanium used in the United States is recycled,9 meaning that if the U.S. can acquire enough titanium to meet the immediate spike in demand, there’s a good likelihood that supply chain risks can be lowered substantially.
How supply chains will fare with the current EV boom also depends on how (and if) vehicle designers factor material availability into their projects. “When we develop new technology, we're not thinking often that far ahead about whether there will be enough materials,” Bhuwalka says.
Thank you to John E. Ross III of Sanibel, Florida, for the question. You can submit your own question to Ask MIT Climate here.
1 U.S. Geological Survey: 2022 Final List of Critical Minerals. Accessed June 29, 2022.
2 U.S. Geological Survey: Titanium Statistics and Information. Accessed June 29, 2022.
3 Ben Jones, Robert J.R. Elliott, Viet Nguyen-Tien. "The EV revolution: The road ahead for critical raw materials demand." Applied Energy, Volume 280, 2020. doi:10.1016/j.apenergy.2020.115072
4 Nassar, Nedal T. et al. "Evaluating the mineral commodity supply risk of the U.S. manufacturing sector." Science Advances, Vol. 6, Issue 8, February 2020. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aay8647
5 BloombergNEF: Electric Vehicle Outlook 2022. Accessed June 29, 2022.
6Laurel G. Woodruff, George M. Bedinger, and Nadine M. Piatak. "Titanium: Professional Paper 1802-T." U.S. Geological Survey, December 2017. doi:10.3133/pp1802T
7 M. Garside, "Reserves of titanium minerals worldwide in 2021, by country," from Statista, April 2022. Accessed June 29, 2022.
8 International Energy Agency: Trends and developments in electric vehicle markets, Global EV Outlook 2021. Accessed June 29, 2022.
9 Takeda, O., Ouchi, T. & Okabe, T.H. "Recent Progress in Titanium Extraction and Recycling." Metallurgical and Materials Transactions, 51, 2020. doi:10.1007/s11663-020-01898-6