U.S. Energy Department Awards QuesTek $1.2M for Ultra-high Temperature 3D Printing Metals

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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) awarded a $1.2 million grant to high-performance materials developer QuesTek Innovations. The funds will be used to design and develop novel materials for next-generation turbine blade alloys and compatible coating systems. The Evanston, Illinois-based company will create a system of functionally-graded Niobium-based alloys suitable for additive manufacturing (AM) and capable of sustaining high-temperature operations and increase fuel efficiency.

The QuesTek team received the grant as part of $16 million in funding recently awarded for 17 Phase I projects through ARPA-E’s Ultrahigh Temperature Impervious Materials Advancing Turbine Efficiency (ULTIMATE) program. Released in April 2020, ULTIMATE helps the chosen teams launch promising new materials for gas turbines in the aviation and power generation industries. ULTIMATE teams will simultaneously develop new manufacturing processes that ensure turbine blades can operate at ultra-high temperatures and withstand the extreme operating environments commonly found in natural gas turbines.

Gas turbine rotor being serviced at the workshop. Image courtesy of QuesTek.

Gas turbines are “air-breathing machines” which depend on the air mass through the compressor to generate power output, as described by Power Engineering International. Working under harsh environmental conditions means the gas turbines have to withstand some of the planet’s most extreme weather. Even though the temperature capability of current state-of-the-art blade materials has improved steadily over the last few decades to 1100 ºC (2012°F) thanks to incremental microstructure and chemistry refinement, through the ULTIMATE program, ARPA-E expects to improve the efficiency of gas turbines by increasing the temperature capability of the materials used in the most demanding environments.

“Designing a new turbine material with significantly better performance than current nickel-based superalloys is one of the biggest challenges facing the field of materials science today,” stated Dana Frankel, QuesTek’s Manager of Design and Product Development. “We’re excited for this opportunity to apply our proven computational materials design approach to develop a new refractory turbine alloy, paving the way for a step-change in turbine engine performance and efficiency.”

Gas turbines are used in extreme weather. Image courtesy of QuesTek.

Referred to as the “Concurrent Design of a Multimaterial Niobium Alloy System for Next-generation Turbine Applications,” QuesTek’s project will apply some of its successful technology and processes. The team will rely on its Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME)-based models, AM technology, as well as its turbine design and manufacturing, and extensive experience in modeling metal alloys and coatings to develop a printable materials solution for a next-generation turbine blade alloy and coating system capable of sustained operation at 1300°C (2372°F). Using computational tools, QuesTek can create models for further study of materials and their structures and chemistry, resulting in better performance.

QuesTek will focus on designing a Niobium-based multi-material alloy system consisting of a ductile, precipitation-strengthened, deformation-resistant alloy for the turbine “core,” combined with an oxidation-resistant, bond coat-compatible Niobium alloy for the “case.” The proposed multi-material Niobium alloy and coating system will achieve a combination of properties suitable for various gas or industrial turbine components such as blade, vane, and panel structures.

To define aerospace requirements, perform component design, and guide testing and qualification, QuesTek will be teaming up with Connecticut-based leading aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. Ultimately this collaboration will help accelerate the adoption of the designed materials into next-generation engines. The project team also includes engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for AM process development and coating development experts from the University of Minnesota.

A disassembled steam turbine in the process of repairing an electric generator at a power plant. Image courtesy of QuesTek.

Natural gas is used in gas turbines to generate electricity, and its adoption is quickly growing. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that natural gas turbines produce approximately 38% of U.S. electricity. According to the ULTIMATE program guidelines, the development of new ultra-high temperature materials with compatible coatings and manufacturing technologies can increase gas turbine efficiency up to 7%, which will significantly reduce wasted energy and carbon emissions. It can also improve the economics of aviation power generation and other sectors.

But gas turbines’ operational temperature is currently limited by its component materials, particularly those in the hot gas path, such as turbine blades, vanes, nozzles, and shrouds. Turbine blades experience the most significant operational burden because they must concurrently withstand the highest temperatures and stresses. ARPA-E states that turbine blades are made of single-crystal nickel- or cobalt-based superalloys with limits high-temperature stability. Additionally, after many years of refinements, the development of new materials for turbine blades has plateaued. So the challenge lies in discovering, developing, and implementing novel materials that work at temperatures significantly higher than that of the nickel or cobalt superalloys.

DOE awards funding for Phase I of the ARPA-E ULTIMATE program. Image courtesy of ARPA-E/ULTIMATE.

“Natural gas turbines generate more than a third of the country’s electricity, supplying power to consumers across America,” said ARPA-E Director Lane Genatowski. “ULTIMATE teams will improve the efficiency of the generation sector by developing materials that increase producers’ efficiency and create positive economic benefits for industrial and public consumers nationwide.”

ULTIMATE teams will demonstrate proof of concept for alloy compositions, coatings, and manufacturing processes through modeling and laboratory-scale tensile coupon testing of essential properties. At the end of Phase 1, teams will be down-selected based on the technical review to receive additional funding to develop selected alloy compositions and coatings and the production of generic small-scale turbine blades to demonstrate manufacturability of designs. The teams are looking forward to the second phase of ULTIMATE, where an additional $14 million in funds will be available.

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