I was on a junket the past couple of days organized by Allegheny Technologies Inc.
I learned a lot about titanium sponges, North Carolina barbecue and the potentially lethal effects of tungsten inside ball-point pens (which sounds slightly more interesting than it actually is).
But here's what I learned yesterday about the relationship between high-performance metals, the aerospace industry and geo-politics.
The drive to make jet engines more efficient requires engine cores to operate at increasingly higher temperatures. That means engine manufacturers must increasingly rely on nickel-based alloys, which is about the only metal that's both strong enough and practical enough for this purpose.
The catch is that most raw materials of nickel are mined from places like Russia or Kazakhstan. The only nickel available for manufacturing in the United States comes from scrap yards. ATI's executives say they also have nickel sources in Canada and Australia, but acknowledge that the vast majority comes from our friends in the former Soviet Union.
It makes me wonder: What happens to the jet engine industry if one of the sources for this metal decides to shut down the supply?
ATI likes to refer to itself as a "geo-politically secure source" for specialty metals, but they are really just talking about titanium, which can be extracted in abundance from within the USA. Nickel is not so easy to find, despite its increasing significance in jet engines.