We are in an age of incredible breakthroughs in science and technology. If we were to pause for a moment to think about the growth of human civilization, we would find that the pace of social and economic growth has been closely linked with peoples ability to use and shape materials. Man has blazed a trail into outer space, harassed the energy of atomic nucleus, built “thinking” machines and unraveled the mystery of the living cell. Today this proficiency has become the bedrock of a country’s development.
We are moving into ever and fascinating fields, but there is one field of activity which, while being old as the hills, is no less fascinating. This field is metallurgy, the production and working of metals and alloys. Light-weight high-performance materials and alloys have developed in the making of aircraft, satellites, launch-vehicles and missiles. Our houses are full of modern materials: stainless steel vessels, shaving blades with special coatings, special non-sticking and slow-heating frying pans: plastic and fiber-glass products. Musical instruments and audio-visual equipment, including television, depend crucially on certain advance materials.
Down the ages people were first familiar with only a few metals to be followed by the newly discovered elements when the range of useful metals extended as well. Now-a-days many implants to replace the broken bones are made of modern materials like titanium; the catheters used to save patients with blocked blood vessels are made of special metallic wires coated with plastic materials. Many biomaterials are also now emerging.
The explosive development of technology is the hallmark of the 20th century, a time when instrument-making, chemistry, aviation rocketry, electronics and nuclear power-all started to place order for new materials with unique properties. This is what prompted the scientists to delve deeper into the world of rare metals. A careful study of those “recluses” revealed that many of them were quite “gifted”. Thus began the advent of rare metals in the industry.
Today it is seen that not a single new area of technology can do without rare metals, their alloys or compounds. We find fine-filament suspensions for navigation instruments of high precision are made from rhenium alloys; a thin layer of indium deposited on ball-bearings protect them from erosion and increases their service life; gallium goes into the manufacture of the so-called liquid seals in the vacuum equipment and high-temperature thermometers; cesium is the most important is the most important component of photocells used in flaw detectors; hafnium is the material from which control rods of nuclear reactors are made and is also promising as a component of super Aluminum-based Master Alloy being developed for aviation and rocketry. Such examples could be listed indefinitely.
Is it necessary to have good material resource-base metals and minerals to become a developed country? U.S.A has a rich base in resources: so does Russia:China’s mineral resource is of great helping its speedy economic growth; Australia too is well off in this regard. Most of Africa is endowed with some of the best mineral ores but most of the liberated colonized countries are still poor since they did not bother about local growth. However it is only Japan, which has practically no mineral resource base of significance, has proved to be avowedly the economical and technological leader of the 21st century. The Japanese mastered the technologies to use their minerals and materials for economic and practical gains. High- cost products flow from Japan to other countries which have supplied them the raw materials and minerals. That is how the economic strength of nations which have mastered technologies is built up.
There are instances of some developed and industrialized nations denying products derived from the ores to the very countries from which they got the ores in the first place, on the grounds that these products derived are of strategic use. During the seventies when we required a few beryllium products for making gyroscopes required for the guidance systems; both America and Japan declined to supply. It turned out that India has one of the richest stocks of beryllium ores, which it also supplies to developed countries. The denial of the beryllium products was one of the early lessons for India. Now, of course, India does not have to beg others for beryllium products. The stride in the technologies of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has set up a beryllium machining facility at Vashi, Mumbai. Indian ore is finding its way to Indian space, atomic energy and industrial projects.
Fortunately, India has a number of excellent mineral resources. It has very good iron deposits, manganese deposits, etc. As for the wonder modern metal titanium, India tops the list of countries having this resource. We have one of the best quality bauxite ores of the world. We also have several rare-earth strategic and high value mineral resources. We have rich beryl ores to supply beryllium and abundant resources (about three million tones) of monazite, a source for many rare metals.
Considering India’s natural resources as well as our industrial and R&D capabilities, we can narrow down thirteen areas for special attention. These thirteen areas are steel, titanium, aluminum, rare earths, composites, ceramics, building materials, photonic materials, super conducting materials, polymeric materials, nuclear materials, biomaterials as well as a generic technologic area of surface engineering. These are the areas in which India can excel and can have a long term and sustainable and competitive advantage over many decades.