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INL Researchers Use Hybrid Additive Manufacturing Process to Make Advanced Nuclear Fuels for Reactors

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The Idaho National Laboratory (INL), part of the DOE‘s complex of national laboratories and the top laboratory in the US for nuclear energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment, has been involved with 3D printing technology in the nuclear power industry more than once, working with the DOE and GE Hitachi to irradiate 3D printed metal parts and then test them in a massive 3D printing research project, and partnering with ORNL as it used neutrons to check out a material’s performance in a running engine. Now, researchers at INL are working with industry partners to develop a unique additive manufacturing method of making advanced nuclear fuels.

We all know that additive manufacturing processes typically waste less material than conventional fabrication methods, and have faster production times as well. In an effort to make new nuclear plants with emission-free baseload energy seem more attractive, Dr. Isabelle Van Rooyen and Dr. Clemente Parga with INL teamed up with Ed Lahoda of Westinghouse in a DOE-accelerated technology commercialization project to work out a new additive manufacturing process to produce fuel out of uranium silicide (U3Si2) to use in advanced reactors. This innovative nuclear fuel production process is called Additive Manufacturing as an Alternative Fabrication Technique, or AMAFT.

Dr. Van Rooyen, a staff scientist in INL’s Fuel Design & Development department, explained, “AMAFT technology uses a novel hybrid additive manufacturing process, which means we combine some traditional and some additive manufacturing processes to reduce the number of steps – and therefore the time and cost – involved in producing fuel for power reactors.”

In-situ laser fabrication of Zr3Si2 surrogate material from Zirconium and Silicon powder mixtures. [Image: INL]

There are multiple steps involved in traditional fuel manufacturing methods in order to convert raw uranium ore into UF6, then into uranium dioxide (UO2) to be used in a light-water reactor’s final fuel. But the AMAFT process, which uses a novel hybrid laser engineering shaping technique to make a small, localized melt pool out of multiple powder sources so a pellet of dense U3Si2 fuel is directly formed, decreases these steps by removing the pre-processing of UF6 to convert it to UO2.

U3Sihas the potential to become a better advanced fuel, with greater safety benefits, than the traditional fuels most nuclear power plants use that are based in UO2, due to its great thermal conductivity and density. These qualities help improve economics as well as safety margins.

The hybrid AMAFT process can begin with any feedstock based in uranium – this is what gets rid of the conversion steps and opens the supply chain to other materials. When combined with other advanced manufacturing processes, AMAFT offers fabricators more flexibility, including the option of using different raw materials. Together with University of Florida PhD candidate Jhonathan Rosales, who worked on characterization activities for the development products, Dr. Van Rooyen and Parga are working to make AMAFT easily scalable, which is an important requirement to become commercially viable.

First steps toward the additive manufacturing of U3Si2 fuel. [Image: INL]

As the innovative AMAFT process moves closer and closer to the market, the INL researchers are working on some benchtop experiments with a pulsed laser and surrogate material. The team, while working out the technical development of the novel fabrication process, is also participating in the DOE’s Energy I-Corps initiative.

The initiative partners industry mentors with DOE researchers to further refine their concepts in order to support the specific needs of possible customers.

“It was a surprise to learn how critical partnerships would be to the overall commercialization process,” said Dr. Van Rooyen, the principal investigator for the AMAFT Energy I-Corps team. “Energy I-Corps was an opportunity to think outside the box from our normal everyday research mindset.”

Industry mentor Ed Lahoda and entrepreneurial lead Dr. George Griffith rounded out the rest of the AMAFT Energy I-Corps team.

What do you think of the AMAFT process? Join the discussion on this story and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com, or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.

[Source: Phys.org]

 

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