Tungsten carbide vs titanium – a modern machinist dilemma



The question of tungsten carbide vs titanium arose as both elements seemingly have properties that allow them to be employed in largely similar industrial applications.

I suppose that you already know what titanium is but you may not be as familiar with tungsten. You may be more familiar with the more popular name wolfram. The initial widespread use of this metal was in classical light bulb filaments as tungsten possesses the highest melting point of all the elements. The use of tungsten in incandescent bulbs was pioneered by the company Tungsram in 1904 in Europe and soon followed by General Electric in 1906 in the US. Tungsten remained in use until the modern era when incandescent bulbs began to be replaced by the more energy efficient fluorescent or LED lamps.

Tungsten carbide is an inorganic chemical component and it contains carbon and tungsten in equal proportions. It has two possible structure forms, a hexagonal form (α-WC) and a cubic form (β-WC)– see the titanium density page to better the understand the importance of packing structure.

 

Here is a comparative table of the main properties tungsten carbide vs titanium :

Property

Measure Unit

Tungsten carbide

Titanium

Melting point

°C/°F

2870/5200

1650/3000

Hardness

Mohs Scale

9

6

Density

g/cm³

15.63

4.506

Tensile strength

MPa

344.8

434

Young modulus

GPa

550

116

Shear modulus

GPa

270

44

Bulk modulus

GPa

439

110

The layman analysis of these hard figures reveals the following. Tungsten carbide is much harder and more tear resistant than titanium (last three values and hardness). On the other hand, tungsten carbide is definitely heavier, as close as four times heavier as titanium.

The applications closely follow these properties. So, where hardness and durability is favored over weight, tungsten carbide wins over titanium. Tungsten carbide really shines in industrial machining, especially in cutting tools and abrasive procedures, mainly because, apart from better maintaining cutting edge, tungsten carbide higher temperature resistance allows for faster machining runs, generating increased productivity, thus higher profits margins for the intrepid entrepreneur.

Where weight is also a critical factor the tungsten carbide vs titanium battle is easily decided in favor of titanium. The structural components segment of aero-space industry is the obvious first application, although is to be noted that some heavy tungsten alloys are also used here, especially because of the increased weight such as in ailerons, rudders, and elevator parts for fixed and rotary wing aircraft.

The increased weight of tungsten is also useful for professional racing car chassis as it offers up to 50% more weight in a given volume, with the added advantages of direct attachment via threaded holes and the lack of deformation.

In more commercial applications, tungsten carbide rings are considered better than titanium rings, due to increased hardness which makes them virtually unscratchable. The difference in weight is unnoticeable, but one should also take in consideration the fact that tungsten carbide is a composite mixture that may include nickel in some instances, which is susceptible of causing allergic reactions, similar with stainless steel (which also contains nickel). This is not the case with titanium which is a singular element in its own right and much less susceptible of causing allergies.

Obviously, the perfect choice between tungsten carbide and titanium heavily depends on the exact application. This is only a starting point for a carefully analysis that should take account of all the critical factors that are involved in each of the phase of the intended product – design, manufacturing and expected use. Also, cost may also be a critical factor. Titanium is by no means a cheap material to be used in manufacturing of products, but its price is largely surpassed by tungsten carbide – roughly $46/kg versus only $8 to $10/kg in titanium.

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