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Aerospace recovery will lead metals into new territory

The twin challenges of Covid-19 and climate change could subdue metals demand from the aerospace for years, but a recovery likely will bring with it an expansion into new areas and fresh innovations shaping the use of non-ferrous metals.

US aerospace giant Boeing yesterday announced a further raft of job cuts and a $2.4bn net loss for the second quarter, with chief executive David Calhoun warning that the industry may take three years to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the same week, the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris — one of the world’s largest — announced it is reconsidering whether to go ahead with a fourth terminal due to the pandemic and longer-term climate goals.

The steep slump in the commercial aerospace sector has hit demand for multiple metals, with indexes for chromium, cobalt, hafnium, rhenium and titanium all falling to multi-year lows at various points since the pandemic began early this year. As the sector now focuses its attention on recovery, companies are increasingly focusing on developing aviation technologies and utilising the capabilities of metals for fresh innovations.

Electric aircraft adapt for short-haul travel

The localisation of travel is a trend that may have been borne out of climate change concerns, but Covid-19 now may force a swifter transition.

Aerospace manufacturers are already designing vehicles to cope with increased demand for local travel, as well as deliver cargo over short distances.

On 28 July, Airbus successfully tested its CityAirbus electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) aircraft in Germany — a 2.2t all-electric four-seater plane designed for intra-city travel. The craft is expected to be capable of making journeys of up to 97km at speeds of 75mph on a full charge.

The EVTOL is one of a number of electric aircraft and air taxis in development, with many due for the mass market in the latter half of the coming decade. Boeing also successfully tested its self-piloting all-electric passenger air vehicle (PAV) in January 2019, which will be used for passenger and cargo delivery.

And as batteries become more powerful, so do electric aircraft. Israeli start-up Eviation demonstrated its Alice prototype at the Paris Air Show earlier this month. The full working model is expected to carry nine passengers up to 1,046km at speeds of up to 276mph. It will launch in 2022, making it one of the first medium-range commercial electric aircraft.

Due to the relatively low altitude of the flights and lack of jet propulsion, some the higher-temperature metals may not be required for construction but light metal titanium-aluminium alloys for the bodies would still be in demand. The rise in battery-powered short-haul aircraft will add to growing demand for battery metals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel and manganese.

Private firms expand into space

Newer aerospace companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will challenge incumbents such as Boeing and Airbus for the creation of the next round of aviation technology, driving demand for aerospace metals in the coming decades.

In commercial travel, space is set to be the next frontier. Virgin Galactic plans to launch passenger space travel this decade and had already tested a craft capable of entering space in 2018. If the industry grows, jet-powered spacecraft such as Virgin’s USS Unity will boost demand for the high-temperature metals used in jet engines such as chromium, hafnium, rhenium and tantalum, as well as light metal alloys for the hull.

Talk of an emerging new space race between the US and China could also fuel the burgeoning technological competition between the countries, with the administration of US President Donald Trump having invested in a new space force and in private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing Starliner to build new equipment. China, also investing heavily in space technology, is on the verge of sending its first mission to Mars.

“Space is the world’s new war-fighting domain,” Trump said at the launch event for the space force. “Among grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital.”

A renewed focus on space should bring with it publicly funded defence contracts, which have proven to provide a more secure stream of demand for metals during the pandemic. A further stream should come from private companies looking to profit from space travel, with Airbus, Boeing and SpaceX all developing rockets and even space cargo ships.

Competition between the two nations could lead to trade measures being imposed on what each country regards as strategically important metals in the near future, similar to tensions that have escalated in recent months over rare earths.

Argus on 28 July assessed prices for 99.8pc tantalum metal at $270-280/kg du Rotterdam, unchanged for more than a month amid a dearth of spot enquiries. Prices for TG100 aerospace-grade titanium sponge were assessed at $6.80-7.50/kg du Rotterdam on the same day, down by 12.27pc from $7.80-8.50/kg at the start of this month because of a sharp fall in demand from the commercial aerospace sector.

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