US Department of Energy Announces Results of 3D Printed Geothermal Application Competition

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The US Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced the results of the American-Made Geothermal Manufacturing Award’s final stage, involving a preliminary test of the advanced 3D printing prototypes that participants began designing more than two years ago, in January, 2020. Over the course of four stages, in which a total of $4.65 million in prize money was awarded, a group of 20 teams was winnowed down to the two winners: Team Downhole Emerging Technologies, and Team Ultra-High Temperature Logging Tool, both based in Houston, Texas.

Image courtesy of DOE

The contest targeted technology for tapping geothermal wells, where liquid or vapor heat can be harnessed to generate electricity. Each winning team was awarded $500,000 in cash, and will receive up to $200,000 in additional funds to test its design in the field. As its name suggests, Team Ultra-High Temperature Logging Tool developed technology for well logging in geothermal exploration, a process indispensable to understanding a given well’s geological record.

Image courtesy of DOE

Team Downhole Emerging Technologies (DET) developed an all-metal alternative to conventional packer systems for well drilling. Packer systems are used in drilling operations, to force liquids being drilled from the well-bores, into the completion tubing. Team DET developed a system made from the nickel-chromium superalloy Inconel, specifically designed to stand up to the high temperatures faced in geothermal drilling.

In a DOE press release, the deputy assistant secretary for renewable power, Alejandro Moreno, said, “This DOE competition harnesses breakthroughs in additive manufacturing [AM] to help overcome barriers to widespread deployment of geothermal energy. The rapid prototype development supported by this prize is spurring advancements in the geothermal industry to help power the nation from the heat beneath our feet.”

The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) has been awarding funds for a variety of domestically-produced clean energy projects since January, 2018, via a series of contests — including the Geothermal Manufacturing Award — called American-Made Challenges. Aside from the participants, the main beneficiaries of the contests are the institutions comprising the American-Made Network.

Aerospace component made from Inconel, also produced by Proto Labs. Image courtesy of Proto Labs Inc

The latter is an alliance of over 100 different associations, investors, and research centers in the renewables sector. Teams participating in the challenges typically turn to organizations from the American-Made Network for assistance with their projects. For instance, concerning the winners of the Geothermal Manufacturing Award, Team DET sought the services of Minnesota’s Proto Labs, while Team Ultra-High Temperature Logging Tool worked with Sandia National Laboratories.

Thus, programs like the American-Made Challenges, or like the AM Forward initiative, bolster the AM sector from multiple directions. New ideas from startups and small manufacturers are catalyzed, at the same time as activity is stimulated at more established institutions and enterprises. Interestingly, similar things can be said about the renewables sector. Among other reasons, then, the consistent flow of government funding and strong connection to public policy are factors that should continue to push the AM and renewable energy sectors closer together.

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