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Globalization of Materials R&D: Time for a National Strategy
nickel and cobalt that have very useful properties at elevated temperatures and/or in corrosive environments.
The superalloy industry serves a limited market, albeit with critically important products. Superalloys find application in the aerospace industry as the primary enabling material in the hot end of jet engines with both rotating and static components and in auxiliary power units for aircraft. They are also used in land-based industrial gas turbines, in petrochemical refining facilities where elevated temperatures prevail, in chemical plants where corrosive conditions exist for which normal stainless steels are not useful, and in sour oil and gas wells.
The principal cost element in the production of superalloys is the cost of the nickel or cobalt. Since none of the worldwide producers of superalloy products produces nickel, all have to buy their raw material on the open market and from the same primary or secondary (scrap) suppliers. Maintaining a competitive position therefore relies on managing operating costs and maintaining a competitive lead in state-of-the-art technology, both of which require continuing R&D on new and constantly evolving compositions and processing technologies.
The three industries that consume the most superalloy products are the aerospace industry—principally jet engines—the land-based turbine business, and the chemical process industry. Each is facing challenges that could threaten superalloy R&D in the United States. Increased international competition and globalization might threaten the aerospace industry, which has been the source of high-value exports for the United States. The land-based turbine business has grown significantly in the past decade but may be self-limiting because the rising cost of the natural gas used to generate electricity—for instance, the price of gas tripled in 2004—decreases the incentive to add natural-gas-based electricity generation to the power grid. The chemical process industry has not been investing in the United States in recent years, and if that trend continues, the market for the superalloy products that it consumes in plant construction and maintenance will shrink, putting further downward pressure on costs and profits.
COMPANIES MELTING AND PRODUCING SUPERALLOY MATERIALS IN THE UNITED STATES
Based principally in New Hartford, New York, Special Metals Corporation (SMC) makes forged bar products—particularly for rotating parts of jet engines—and flat-rolled nickel-base alloys. SMC became a public company in 1961 and then became private once again in 1987, when it was purchased by a French company, Albert and Duval. In 1997, SMC went public once again. In 2002, after two succes-