Materials science continues to yield innovative discoveries at neck-breaking speed. Followers of ARPN are aware of Scalmalloy – an “aluminum alloy powder ‘with almost the specific strength of titanium’ [used] to build incredible structures by fusing thin layers of the material together.”
One of its key components is Scandium – which explains the first two letters of the somewhat unusual name. In the context of the lightweighting revolution, which has been marked by the “growing imperative to lightweight transportation, buildings, and infrastructure systems,” Scandium has become an indispensable tech metal.
Researchers at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, in collaboration with the Fraunhofer ILT have now found a way to successfully 3D print a high-performance scandium/aluminum alloy (Al-Mg-Sc-Zr) using selective laser melting (SLM) technology – a “specific 3D printing technique, which utilizes high power-density laser to fully melt and fuse metallic powders to produce near net-shape parts with near full density (up to 99.9% relative density).”
Already, Scandium is an indispensable material for aeronautics with Aluminium-Scandium alloys having helped reduce aircraft weights by 15% to 20%, without compromising the strength of the building material. 3D printed Scandium and Aluminum-based high-performance alloys as the one produced by the above-referenced researchers may become even more relevant as the U.S. Government embarks on a path to create a U.S. Space Force.
However, with demand for Scandium expected to rise tremendously, there are challenges on the horizon. As we have previously pointed out:
“While on paper, Scandium resources may in fact be abundant, it is rarely concentrated in nature, making commercially viable deposits extremely rare. Because it is at present largely recovered as a co-product during the processing of various Gateway Metals, including Tin and Nickel, total global production rates are quite low (see our previous post). Scandium may also be present in certain Copper and Rare Earth deposits.”
In order to meet this anticipated jump in demand, several mining companies – most recently in Russia and Australia – have begun exploring the possibility of primary Scandium recovery. In the U.S., which is currently 100% import dependent to meet our domestic Scandium needs and has to rely on China and Russia, developers of multi-metallic deposits are also studying the inclusion of scandium recovery into their project plans.
Change cannot happen overnight – particularly in a regulatory environment that does not favor resource development. From a U.S. perspective, much will depend on whether domestic stakeholders are able to improve our policy framework to unleash our own resource potential.”