There is a great deal of promise for the use of 3D printing in the nuclear power industry, but there are also a number of challenges. The parts required for nuclear power tend to be extremely complex, which makes supports difficult or even impossible, if they’re located inside the component, to remove. Further research is needed on how to effectively fabricate and optimize these components, because the potential for additive manufacturing in this industry is too promising to abandon.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering has been awarded $1 million to study and advance the design and manufacture of nuclear components using 3D printing. The award is part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy’s Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies (NEET) program.
The research will be directed by Albert To, Associate Professor of Mechanical engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) at the Swanson School. Co-investigators include Wei Xiong, Assistant Professor of MEMS at Pitt, and Owen Hildreth, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Corporate collaborators in Pittsburgh include Curtiss-Wright Corporation and Jason Goldsmith at Kennametal Inc.
The research will involve the development of dissolvable supports, as well as greater topology optimization and improved microstructure design to fabricate nuclear components with minimal distortion and greater structural integrity at lower cost.
“Many gaps still remain in the scientific understanding of additive manufacturing, most especially the optimization of the assembly process while reducing build failure and cost,” said Drs. To and Xiong. “Removing internal support structures in complex additive manufactured components via post-machining is costly and sometimes impossible. By integrating dissolvable supports, topology optimization, microstructure design, we have an opportunity to drastically reduce post-processing costs for AM components, while ensuring manufacturability of designs with complex internal features like those needed in the nuclear industry.”
A major focus will be on support removal. According to Dr. Hildreth, 30 to 70 percent of the cost of additive manufacturing lies in post-processing, particularly the removal of supports.
“Our dissolvable support technology enables consolidation of the many manufacturing steps currently required for complex nuclear components into one AM assembly,” he said. “This will reduce manufacturing costs by 20 percent and improve manufacturing schedules by at least six months. This work will help bring dissolvable supports to not just nuclear applications, but to the broader metal AM community so that costs can be significantly reduced. Metal AM is projected to be a $21.2 billion industry in five years, and these batch-processable dissolvable supports could save the industry $10 billion while also expanding design freedom and reducing post-processing machining.”
The award to the University of Pittsburgh is one of five NEET Crosscutting Technologies projects led by Department of Energy national laboratories, industry and US universities to address challenges in nuclear energy. The projects will involve the development of advanced sensors and instrumentation, advanced manufacturing methods, and materials for multiple nuclear reactor plant and fuel applications.
“Because nuclear energy is such a vital part of our nation’s energy portfolio, these investments are necessary to ensuring that future generations of Americans will continue to benefit from safe, clean, reliable, and resilient nuclear energy,” said Ed McGinnis, the DOE’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy. “Our commitment to providing researchers with access to the fundamental infrastructure and capabilities needed to develop advanced nuclear technologies is critical.”
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