In the ever-evolving landscape of metal powder production, the importance of recycled material as feedstock has taken center stage. The imperative drives this shift to reduce carbon footprint and the need for sustainable practices in the wake of geopolitical changes. As of 2022, the global metal powder market is valued at around USD 4.8 billion, with an expected CAGR of 3.5% from 2023 to 2028. Metal materials, including powders, for Additive Manufacturing were valued at $592M in 2022, having grown 25%YoY vs 2021 (Wohlers Report 2023). Continuum Powder’s projection for 2024 could approach $1B.
However, producing metal powders using traditional methods is energy and resource intensive. It is challenging to be sustainable at the projected future scale. This article describes a vision for meeting sustainability and corporate responsibility, while delivering affordability and increased quality of additive manufacturing.
The Energy Intensity Challenge:
Metal powder production traditionally involves the energy-intensive process of melting alloying elements, forming them into ingots and/or metal bars, and then further processing for powder production. These processes’ sheer logistics and carbon footprint underscore the need for a more sustainable approach. The energy consumption in traditional metal production accounts for a significant portion of the industry’s carbon footprint, creating a strong environmental and economic incentive to explore more sustainable alternatives.
Evolution of Scrap and Recycled Materials:
Repurposing engineered revert, process waste, and end-of-life metal units is not new. Still, recent years have seen a surge in visibility, driven by geopolitical shifts and a global emphasis on sustainability. As of 2022, the global metal recycling market is projected to reach USD 434.55 billion by 2028, showcasing the growing importance of recycling in the broader metal industry. The term ’scrap‘ has evolved towards ‘secondary materials’, emphasizing the importance of segregated, graded, and certified materials for efficient reuse. Standards and practices established over the years ensure the quality and origin of materials.
As additive manufacturing gains traction, recycling or upcycling metal units to powders becomes a focal point. The transition from lengthy, expensive, and carbon-heavy ingot making to a more direct conversion to powder is both environmentally conscious and economically viable. By 2023, the global additive manufacturing market is estimated to be worth USD 20 billion, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 20% from 2020 to 2025.
Barriers to 100% Recycled Materials:
Achieving the required material specifications demands a meticulous process, treatments, and extensive characterization. Segregation of alloys, removal of coatings, and oxygen reduction become integral to recycling ’secondary materials’ for metal powder production.
A common misconception when using recycled metals and alloys is about its quality. Using utmost care by keeping the recycled material segregated by alloy. Avoiding contamination during collection, storage and transportation is vital in metal recycling process. Chemical composition is controlled by industry standard analytical techniques. Powders produced by upcycling such types of certified metal alloy materials will meet the stringent industry standards. Certifying the resulting powder quality and adherence to standards is crucial and is well defined.
Transitioning to the economic perspective, the cost of recycling metals often surpasses that of extracting virgin elements due to the number of steps and multiple energy intensive melting processes involved. This economic imbalance poses a significant challenge for recycling domestically available resources. However, through disruptive technologies that significantly reduce the number of steps, these challenges are mitigated.
Starting Points and Prioritization:
Initiating the journey toward 100% recycled materials has begun with a priority on less-reactive alloys, such as stainless steels and nickel or cobalt-based alloys. While these are easier to recycle, great interest lies in the recycling of more highly reactive alloys, essential for defense and high-performance applications. Strategic considerations include volume availability, metal unit value, and powder demand, with nickel superalloys, titanium, and aluminum as promising starting points.
Carbon Intensity Reduction:
The shift to recycling feedstock promises a significant reduction in carbon intensity and harmful emissions compared to traditional methods. New technologies offer a distributable alternative, directly converting metal units to powder where they are generated, bypassing energy-intensive processes. Even a rudimentary CO2 analysis makes the environmental benefits obvious.
Cost Savings and Supply Security:
The use of recycled feedstock not only reduces the carbon footprint but also offers potential cost savings. Efficient closed-loop systems between producers and powder converters ensure a secure supply chain, contributing to environmental and economic sustainability. The affordability benefits will be maximized as closed-loop (or circular metals economies) are established between strategic producers and their supply chains.
Decarbonizing the supply chain without compromising quality or cost is not just a headline; it’s the future. The metal powder production industry is at the forefront of a green revolution, embracing recycling feedstock as a cornerstone for sustainable, efficient, and economically viable practices. The global push for sustainability and green technologies is expected to further drive the metal powder market, with a potential market value exceeding USD 7 billion by 2030.
In conclusion, transforming traditional metal powder production methods to direct feedstock recycling marks a paradigm shift towards a greener, more sustainable future. As the industry continues to evolve, integrating recycled materials addresses environmental concerns and promises economic advantages and a secure supply chain. The journey toward 100% recycled materials is underway, heralding a new era for metal powder production.
About the Author
Phil Ward is President and CEO of Continuum Powders, serving in this capacity since 2020. Mr. Ward is responsible for providing strategic, financial, and operational leadership for the company and closely coordinates with the Board of Directors, senior leadership team and investors. He has led several capital rounds of funding and has overseen the substantial expansion of the company’s footprint from California to Singapore and Texas.
Mr. Ward has 35 years of prior global experience in oilfield operations with Schlumberger. He has held multiple leadership roles in Management, Engineering/Product Development and Manufacturing & Field Operations. He has extensive experience related to service delivery, technology development, quality, commercialization and deployment of a complex asset base across a wide range of countries.
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