The first recycled titanium manufacturing plant in the United States is likely to be up and running in Halifax County by the end of the year.
IperionX Limited, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a critical minerals company that made an $82.1 million investment in Halifax, which was announced in September.
The company chose a shell building in South Boston to scale its closed-loop, low-carbon titanium recycling process, bringing 108 jobs to the area.
CEO Taso Arima, who had previously founded a company that worked to bridge the lithium supply chain, said that titanium manufacturing caught his attention for geopolitical reasons.
“The majority of raw titanium manufacturing or refining occurs in China and Russia,” Arima said. “We, as a country, use a lot of titanium for aerospace, consumer products and defense applications. And we were 100% import reliant….so geopolitically, not a very great situation to be in as a country.”
He wanted to work to reshore titanium manufacturing in the U.S., he said. But traditionally, titanium manufacturing is very expensive and carbon- and energy-intensive.
“Our focus in building out IperionX was to reshore that supply chain in America more sustainably,” Arima said. “Also, we wanted to bring down the costs of titanium metal products so that we could use them in more industries.”
Titanium is used in the aerospace, automotive, medical, oil and gas, power and defense industries, to name a few. Many other industries would like to use titanium, Arima said, but don’t because of the high carbon and economic costs.
If these costs were brought down, titanium could be used even more widely. “Anybody that uses stainless steel or aluminum could use titanium if they wanted to,” he said.
But before IperionX’s process, titanium wasn’t infinitely recyclable. And now it is, Arima said.
“It was not a circular metal, but we’ve made it similar to aluminum in that it’s infinitely recyclable today without degradation in quality, with our process,” he said. “If we want to minimize our impact on the environment, having products that last longer and stay in use for longer is the way you want it.”
And titanium is a good resource for this goal, because it is corrosion-free and never rusts, Arima said.
IperionX uses technology that was developed by Zak Fang, a professor at the University of Utah with a research and development background. Fang’s technology was funded by the Department of Energy, Arima said.
Fang invented a titanium recycling process based on a scientific discovery he made in 2016 about the ability to process titanium metal, Arima said. IperionX started working with Fang almost three years ago.
The recycling process turns titanium scrap into a powder form, and the titanium metal powder is then used to create more titanium. All of the feedstock for the process comes from titanium metal scrap, making it a closed-loop process.
“We’re the only company in the world doing a 100% scrap to 100% titanium metal supply chain,” Arima said.
Right now, IperionX does this on a small scale in Salt Lake City, Utah. The company will use a 50,000-square-foot shell building in the Southern Virginia Technology Park in South Boston facility to do this same process at about 50 times the scale, Arima said.
IperionX did a national site selection and chose South Boston from over 100 sites in about 30 states.
“We had very specific criteria” for the facility itself, Arima said. For example, IperionX wanted a shell building — one that was already built, instead of waiting for a new one to be constructed.
But there were also criteria about the site’s access to different resources, like a skilled workforce, clean power, and state and county support. But the thing that sealed the deal, Arima said, was that Halifax County — and Virginia — had “the right people.”
He said at the September announcement that Youngkin was the first to call him during the company’s site selection process, which included sites in North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia.
“A lot came down to the people being very supportive and very proactive,” he said, mentioning Kristy Johnson, executive director of the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority, and her team.
Halifax had a desire to retrain people in their community from traditional tobacco industry jobs, Arima said, with Virginia’s Tobacco Commission to help support that.
“We had very strong support from Governor Youngkin, very strong support from Senator Warner and Senator Kaine,” Arima said. “Being our first facility, we wanted to minimize the risk of not having the right people.”
So IperionX chose Halifax, despite strong competition from other states.
“Every state is putting out their state incentives, and [the Halifax facility] was a good incentive package from a monetary perspective, but it wasn’t the best one we received,” Arima said. “It was a competitive one, but we felt it was more important that there was a proactive government and county development commission there. We thought they would be a great partner for us as we build the project.”
Johnson, executive director of the Halifax IDA, said “it was easy” for the county to express enthusiasm for the potential partnership during initial conversations with IperionX, because they truly were enthusiastic.
“We were hungry for a win, we really were,” she said. “When it came down to it, we all just showed up together. Every single person I called to be on the project visit said yes, and it was without much notice. We were always ready no matter how much time we had to be prepared.”
And without the shell building, IperionX probably wouldn’t have even looked at Halifax, Johnson said, so having that was a crucial factor.
Arima added that Danville’s new center manufacturing for the U.S. Navy is a plus to the location as well.
“We are working very closely across all branches of the military, where we see a lot of need for titanium metal,” he said. “Our ability to recycle broken, worn titanium parts that are not manufactured in the United States anymore, to be able to recycle them and work with the defense industry to reprint them into new parts, is a big thing.”