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I'm working on a story where the main character has to search for titanium (or rather ores containing titanium) in order to repair the hull of a ship. She's on a habitable world that's essentially a vast ocean dotted mostly by small islands. What I'm going for is that the character has the knowhow and specialized equipment to find and mine it. My main question is, what would that equipment be?

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi and welcome! Please take a moment to check out our tour and help center and learn a little bit about what this forum is all about. There are a few issues with this query: first, you don't appear to have done any research. Google exists for a reason, and it's a great resource for any writer when doing basic research like this! Next: we're a specialty forum, as you can see from the links, dedicated to helping you build your fictional world or setting. In this question, you aren't... $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ ...asking anything about the underlying functionality or systems of your universe. Which leads to problem three: we don't do stories. This isn't a writing club and you seem to be in need of a place where you can knock around some plot ideas, such as "what is available on the ship to move my plot from point A to point B". If you have a specific and focused question about a worldbuilding problem, we're more than happy to help! Otherwise, please understand that this kind of question is not a good fit here. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ "What is would that equipment be ?" for underwater Titanium prospecting seems like a very reasonable question to me. I don't think it's story based. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2020 at 5:45
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    $\begingroup$ My main isue with this question is that searching for titanium ores is a rather "regular" activity, so the question might be better at earthscience or somewhat like that. Not much of a "worldbuilding" issue here. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Jedediah -- Actually, no, that's not fine. That's called other SE sites using us as a dumping ground. We do actually have a well stated purpose, and idle curiosity satisfaction isn't one of them. No matter how interesting the questions actually are! Lastly, if the query is "too multifaceted" to google in an hour, it's too broad for SE and would need to be focused. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 20:15

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The main thing she is going to need is an understanding of geology so she now what kinds of minerals to look for and where they are likely to occur. Hopefully she has existing geoligic mapping of the planet, this may not tell her where ore is but will drastically narrow down the paces she will look.

fortunately most titanium is mined from just two minerals, ilmenite (FeTiO3) and rutile (TiO2) both of which occur in similar conditions. Both are magmatic products, but are far easier to mine out of sedimentary deposits, where they can be more concentrated. Most often occuring in well sorted placer deposits, usually heavy metal sands which are beach deposits with major volcanic source rock. Rutile is far rarer but also far purer so it is up to you which to use, it does not change the process for your purposes.

It is roughly a six step process I will break down into two parts.

Part 1, First note such mining is a bulk mining process, basically strip mining. You are shifting a lot of sand. So she will need heavy earth moving equipment, some kind of sequential sorter (likely a combination of magnetic and density based), and lastly a simple chemical leeching system. It is not all that different from leech extracting gold up to this point, you can watch any of the many gold miners on TV to get a feel for it, you end up with a titanium rich iron ore.

Part 2. the next step is to smelt out the iron, as a side benefit you get a lot of usable iron this way but it may be less than the total amount of titanium (some deposits can be as high as 60% titanium). Next you chlorinate the slag off the iron, basically a chemical steam bath. lastly you smelt the Titanium tetra-chloride in an arc smelter (no oxygen is essential) to get the metal. You can get a basic breakdown of the process here and a more in depth look at the process here.

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Go to where titanium is naturally scavenged in the ocean.

On earth, there is a lot of titanium in the crust. But barely any dissolved in seawater. Why?

Dissolved titanium in the open ocean

Dissolved titanium is depleted in surface waters and enriched in deep waters, with a range of more than two orders of magnitude, and there are several indications that it is scavenged (removed by biotic or abiotic processes).

If it is being scavenged from the open water, where is it accumulated? I think no-one knows for sure. Other metals collected from the water column accumulate into nodules - probably mostly thru biogenic processes. Is there titanium in these nodules? Yes!

13.11 - Deep-Ocean Ferromanganese Crusts and Nodules

enter image description here

/Titanium reaches high concentrations of up to nearly 3% in crusts and nodules./

My proposition: rather than adapt terrestrial titanium mining techniques (with which you are unfamiliar), make plausible science fiction. The authors of the above linked article propose that metallic nodules on the ocean floor could serve as a source for various metals. On earth we would probably not get titanium this way because it is a lot easier to scrape out of the crust. But other rarer metals might be worth the trouble.

On your world, there is really no crust to scrape. Collecting these nodules (which form biogenically) is worth the trouble. And more fun for a fiction because she can do it by hand, in the depths of an ocean world where there will be exciting hazards. Perhaps the organisms scavenging the titanium might not want give it up - instead of nodules you can have the titanium present in shells or colonies of creatures. Maybe she figures that out because one washes up on her beach and she checks the Ti content accidentally and serendipitously.

And she can still use her technical expertise - once she schleps these nodules back upstairs she still has to refine them. I hope she has some scifi tech for that part because as I understand it is not easy.

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  • $\begingroup$ while possible why mine something that might have 3% titanium under the best case scenario vs heavy metal sands which can have as much as 60% titanium ore? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ @John - I had no idea there were sands that were such rich sources of titanium! I could not turn that info up w (admittedly brief) google. Link? $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ sources are in my answer $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ @John Sands require deposits on the surface, and weathering. How many heavy metal sand deposits are found on our world, on islands? I'd lay money on none (Madagascar does, but is that the size island we're talking about?). If there are a ton more islands on this world, you'd have to explain how there are not continents. - (THM) concentrate from the bulk sand, in most ore deposits of this type is around 1% heavy minerals. Unique South African sands; 86% (continent, plus long weathering/removal of light sand (storms)). $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    Commented May 4, 2020 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ This should end the argument, Hawaii has titanium deposits including soil deposits as high as 30%. beware this is a direct download link, scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10125/53872/… $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 13:02
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(Note: I have no actual mining experience.)

If she wants to find it quickly, Star Trek style scanners. Alternatively, natives/locals who already mine the metal.

Otherwise, I think you are taking mineral samples all over the place and analyzing them, for years, until you find traces and gradients of trace pointing you towards an ore source. (One might start with river silt...)

Actually, the structure of the islands could make a big difference. If they are volcanic, volcanic ores are conceivable. If they are older coral islands, the only way you would get ores is if some life form concentrated the mineral you are looking for.

Underwater mining might or might not be possible.

Also, she does have one known available source: Her ship's hull. If she can shave a bit off elsewhere (reducing safety margins...), she might be able to put together enough for repairs.

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I think there is a lot of room for world building in this question and a chance to have the protagonist to interact with several different disciplines and communities to develop the technology to fix the ship.

Titanium is a light strong metal, but not the only metal around and finding substitutes and workarounds as well as helping natives build a technology base could be an interesting aspect of the world building.

As mentioned in previous answer, the geology becomes an interesting aspect of the background of the story, but in addition to paying attention to some of the minerals that contain titanium, the geology of islands and sea level changes, are they volcanic, or remnants of sedimentary rock that has been upthrusts, do they contain fossils, or perhaps remnants of ancient civilizations so old that their metals were folded into the rock but could be mined. (I may be getting off topic...)

With respect to undersea mining, there has been interest at various time in scooping up nodules of metal off the seafloor, as well as finding other materials such as methyl hydrates (under relatively cold and high pressure conditions hydrocarbons can freeze into a kind of ice that if you bring to the surface and ignite and burn). I think the nodules were mostly light metals like magnesium and manganese, but could be useful in alloys.

Also there are interesting challenges in exploring undersea and depending on the water depth could play a major role in your world building, in a shallow world where the sunlight penetrates to the bottom (by 400 ft it is almost completely dark) it would be a quite different than a world where it is deep, dark and cold. In the shallow world, you probably would have life adapt quite differently. Humans for instance might have a lot more motivation to free-dive or adapt to pressure changes if the water was only 100 or 200 ft deep and adapt to farming the sea in a very different way than we would. That could include mining resources. Developing tech to mine underwater could go a lot of different ways. Autonomous vehicles if high tech. Or modifying spaceship tech to work with low tech to develop a low tech type mining submarine. Developing or finding crafts people to build out that kind of tech could be interesting and provide plot points where tech or people fail, or have to innovate.

Specifically with Titanium, it is an interesting metal to work. Titanium oxidize so fast and is so reactive that to weld it you need to do it in an inert atmosphere. The rumors are that when the Soviets were developing their titanium hull submarines that had to construct huge warehouse size building and filled them with Argon to keep the oxygen out, and the workers had to go in essentially space suits to shape and weld the materials.

Another interesting thing with titanium is that when it oxides that the refractive index of the titanium dioxide is large and the thin layers (like an oil film on water) trap the light and the interference results in interesting shimmering colors. So there are jewelry makers who do this initially by anodizing titanium. Aluminium is also reactive and does a similar thing, but is not as reactive as titanium. For both metals the reaction is so fast and self limiting so the metal doesn't "rust" like iron.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is more a comment on the question and potential of the setting than an answer. $\endgroup$
    – rek
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ fair enough, first time posting, still figuring out the rules $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 18:10

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