Stripes of black sand at the water's edge on Tybee Island contain titanium. Credit: Courtesy Stewart Dohrman

Titanium ranks as the ninth most abundant element on earth, just ahead of hydrogen. 

But even though there’s a lot of the metal deemed critical for national security, it is found in scattered clusters, something that makes supply undependable.

If you live on the Georgia coast, though, you’ve probably seen places where titanium is concentrated, maybe without realizing it, while walking on the black sands on Tybee or St. Simons.

“Most of your sands on the beach are made of quartz, which is silicon dioxide,” said Kelly Vance, a geology professor at Georgia Southern University. “But if you’ve been on any of our Georgia beaches, if you look in certain places, you can see little black layers in there, the black layers of sand.

About 35 miles inland from the southern coast of Georgia, a swath of land now called Trail Ridge was beachfront property more than 2 million years ago. Human sunbathers hadn’t evolved yet, but sea turtles like loggerheads had, making it a likely area for laying their eggs. 

Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals wants to mine heavy mineral sands from 8,000 acres along Trail Ridge for titanium, something that has raised concerns among environmentalists because of the proximity to the Okefenokee. Forty conservation organizations have banded together to form the Okefenokee Protection Alliance, which is urging the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to deny Twin Pines the five permits needed to proceed. Their main concern is that mining so close to the edge of the swamp, especially on the ridge, risks disrupting the flow of water in the swamp.

“We have to demonstrate that the public is opposed to this project, and that there’s not scientific justification for this to move forward,” Christian Hunt of Defenders of Wildlife, an alliance member, said on a webinar Wednesday. The EPD has already received more than 40,000 comments about the mining proposal, though no official permit comment period has opened yet.

An aerial view of Twin Pines Minerals’ staging area in Charlton County. Credit: Photo by Joseph Kelly

Just what the company wants to mine and the uses of the mineral in the ground at Trail Ridge has gotten less attention. When extracted from minerals like ilmenite and rutile that make up the heavy minerals sands, what use does titanium dioxide have?

A black mineral that whitens

Had a skinny latte today, or brushed your teeth? You’ve probably eaten some titanium. If not, you’ve probably touched and seen dozens of products containing it.  

“Most titanium ore is refined into titanium dioxide to impart a durable white color to paint, paper, rubber, wallboard, and plastic,” a US Geological Survey fact sheet on titanium reports.

And by “most,” the scientists mean about 95%. 

Vance says that titanium dioxide is found in all kinds of everyday materials: paint, plastic, rubber, slick magazine paper or photo grade poster paper. The paint industry began using titanium dioxide after lead proved to be a health and environmental hazard. But food companies use it as well.

“Because titanium is relatively inert, it can also be used as coloring in such products as toothpaste, skim milk, candy, and sunscreen,” the USGS reports.

Unlike the black-colored heavy mineral sands, pure titanium dioxide, a powder, is a brilliant white. It can provide an opaque base on which to paint other colors, like on candy-coated chocolates. It’s used in toothpaste, skim milk and even sunscreen, according to scientists.

In fact, only about 5 percent of the world’s annual production of titanium minerals goes to make titanium metal, according to the USGS

Titanium crystals Credit: geology.arkansas.gov

“Titanium is different than most other metallic elements in that it is mined primarily to satisfy demands for a chemical product – titanium dioxide for pigment – rather than for the metal itself,” according to the group’s 2017 report. “The high cost of extracting titanium metal from ore curtails broader use of titanium metal and alloys.”

Health concerns have prompted the European Union and Australia to phase out titanium dioxide in foods based on uncertainty about its ability to accumulate in the body and damage genetic material in cells.

It’ll soon be coming out of M&Ms, Skittles and Altoids along with other candies made by Mars Wrigley, the world’s largest candy maker.

“We are continuously listening to our consumers and have committed to removing titanium dioxide from our global portfolio by the end of 2023,” a Mars/Wrigley spokesperson wrote in an email.

Mythological Titans behind modern tech wonders

The name “titanium” refers to its strength.  British clergyman and amateur geologist William Gregor discovered titanium in 1791 in the black magnetic sands of Cornwall. A few years later German chemist Martin Klaproth named it “titanium” after the Greek Titans, a mythical race of  giant deities. 

The small portion of mined titanium that isn’t used in modern manufactured goods is fundamental to modern technology: aircraft frames and engine components and medical devices such as knee replacements.

For those reasons, titanium was among 35 minerals or mineral groups deemed “critical” by the Trump administration in 2017 based on it being essential to the economic and national security of the U.S. and having a supply chain that’s vulnerable to disruption. 

Twin Pines Minerals has emphasized the national security aspect of titanium as lawsuits mounted to try to halt its mining plans in Trail Ridge.

“Opponents would have you believe it is nothing more than a pigment used in paint and toothpaste,” read a full-page advertisement published in the Charlton County Herald earlier this year. “Well, yes, it is a pigment used for those purposes (and a very effective one), but that statement is a deliberate attempt to obscure the thousands of other beneficial uses of titanium.”

China has been implementing a national strategic initiative to buy or control land around the world where rare metals and minerals are located, something that U.S. military and intelligence officials view with worry. Beijing now controls about a third of the world’s reserves of ilmenite, the mineral that accounts for about 90% of the world’s consumption of titanium minerals. 

In 2020 the U.S. relied on multiple nations for imports of titanium dioxides in various forms. More than 100,000 metric tons were sourced from Canada, 38% of the total imported tonnage, according to the USGS. Imports from China were second highest at more than 38,000 metric tons. 

The U.S. imports of titanium metal from China were smaller, at 524 metric tons, all from waste and scrap. Along with China and Russia, Japan is also a large supplier of titanium metal. 

Paddlers navigate the water trail to Minnie’s Lake in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Credit: Tom Wilson

It’s unclear, however, just how the mineral deposits at Trail Ridge would impact U.S. national security or help secure rare resources of titanium metal.

In an interview with The Current, Twin Pines chief executive Steve Ingle says his company extracts the mineral but doesn’t process it into titanium metal. That’s a multi-step process done mainly in other countries. And, Twin Pines doesn’t know if the minerals it extracts will become the ingredients of a fighter jet or a fresh coat of paint.  

“We don’t dictate how our customers use the raw materials we provide them, and at this point, it’s too soon to know who will be purchasing our products,” Ingle wrote in an email. “What is important to know is; China is one of the largest producers of titanium. The federal government declared it as an element essential for national security. Common sense would tell us the U.S. government wouldn’t take such a position if their intent was to assure we had enough pigment for toothpaste and paint.”

What other minerals lay under Georgia’s ground?

Titanium dioxide isn’t the only target at Trail Ridge. Twin Pines’ permit application states it will also extract  zircon and staurolite. 

So what are staurolite and zircon? 

“(Staurolite) is a relatively hard mineral that is a constituent of the mineral mix on the proposed mining site,” Ingle wrote. “It is not in abundance on the property but is present in small quantities. It is a low value mineral that is used as an abrasive in sandblasting.”

Zirconium is also not as plentiful as titanium at the Georgia site, Ingle said, but its use is also key to making electronics, fiber optics, lenses and firearms. 

John Valley, professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, says small pale pink zircons found in black mineral sands are incredibly helpful to scientists to chronicle time. In the same way that carbon-14 dating gives the ages of relatively recent events, zircon reveals more ancient happenings in rock formations.  

A species of fish in Florida picks up zircons and stores them in their sinuses. Valley has studied the age of these “fish head zircons,” which are likely the same era as the Trail Ridge sands, about ”400 million to 1,000 million years old,” he said. 

“When a zircon first forms, it has a lead to uranium ratio of zero,” Valley said. “And as it gets older, radiogenic lead accumulates, because the uranium is decaying (into lead). And so the lead to uranium ratios get higher. And we can measure this with extreme accuracy and precision. And so this is the basis for determining the age of the earth. It’s the gold standard for determining the ages of our ancient events on earth and throughout the solar system.”

But when zircon is not revealing the mysteries of the universe, it has some more pedestrian uses. 

“Those ceramic kitchen knives are usually zirconium oxide, which is an exceedingly hard mineral,” Valley said. “When it’s a fine grain ceramic, it makes a very nice knife.”