Idaho National Laboratory Wants to Disrupt the Nuclear Industry via 3D Printing

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As 3D enhances—and in many cases completely transforms—a wide range of industries and businesses of all sizes, the potential for printing parts for nuclear plants continues to be of interest to scientists. Now, Idaho National Laboratory researchers may be on the verge of disrupting the nuclear industry, bringing forth all the benefits of 3D printing and additive manufacturing processes.

The goal is to finally eliminate ongoing challenges in obtaining parts, along with breaking free from the limitations of conventional production methods. While affordability in production is one of the greatest advantages, INL was able to increase production ‘tenfold’ during an experimental study, said Daniel Wachs, the national technical lead for fuel safety research at INL.

On-demand printing and small-batch production are appealing to the INL research teams, allowing them to work quickly and affordably at the INL Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) – a site used to study materials, performing research with a test capsule to see what happens in scenarios such as exposing nuclear fuel to abnormal conditions in the reactor. These studies are critical for ongoing improvements in the use of nuclear fuels—especially as they are further developed and refined for next-generation plants with rigorous requirements and inspection processes.

Because nuclear power is carbon-free, it remains available all the time—and unaffected by severe weather. As TREAT research is performed, a 3D printed interior (created by a third-party source using a SLS 3D printer) is placed inside a safety-rated, certified module that can be used over and over.

“Historically, safety testing has been difficult and time-consuming and has always been a major barrier to new technology,” said Wachs.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars were saved too, as the test assembly could be split in two. Experiments were performed exponentially faster, and INL reports that they have used the 3D system during testing, with success.

“It could significantly reduce the time and energy that goes into building an acceptable part,” said Wachs.

AM processes allow the researchers to create more lightweight parts—making the technology extremely attractive to aerospace in projects like 3D printed turbine blades, antennas, and more, along with other innovations within the nuclear industry like fabricating nuclear warheads.

Parts that may not have been previously possible can be 3D printed, and in a single piece—meaning the elimination of joined parts that may be weak at some points. As the INL team continues to investigate 3D printing at their lab, they are also working with scientists from both Los Alamos and Oak Ridge to refine inspection of parts during the printing process, along with using cameras and other sensors.

“It could significantly reduce the time and energy that goes into building an acceptable part,” Wachs said.

The team expects their development—along with strides being made in other labs—to substantially affect the industry.

“The innovation that will come out of it is going to be remarkable,” said Wachs.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts! Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com.

Components for the first water environment test capsules to be used in TREAT. Grey components hold experimental specimens and instruments; additive manufacturing allow creation of complex geometries specially designed for each test.

[Source / Images: Idaho National Laboratory]

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