US Air Force Awards Materion $5M for Beryllium 3D Printing

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The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has awarded a two-year, $5 million contract to Materion Corporation of Ohio to expand its R&D into 3D printing applications for beryllium and aluminum-beryllium powders. In addition to defense and aerospace, Materion’s R&D into additive manufacturing (AM) applications for beryllium is also focused on the energy market.

Since it is capable of achieving a rare balance between high strength and thermal conductivity and relatively low density, beryllium is found in a diversity of aircraft and spacecraft components, as well as parts for satellites. The two-year AFRL contract will bolster Materion’s R&D for beryllium powders usable in “multiple deposition technologies”, along with the pre- and post-processing and workforce development associated with that objective.

Custom UHV chamber made from beryllium. Image courtesy of Materion

In a press release about the AFRL’s award of a $5 million contract to Materion for R&D into AM applications for beryllium, the president of Materion Performance Materials, Clive Grannum, said, “Our [AM] laboratory has demonstrated the viability of beryllium [AM], and we look forward to working with the US-AFRL to advance into a new phase of our [R&D] efforts. With our long history innovating beryllium solutions, we have the expertise to operationalize these specialized manufacturing techniques for existing and new customers who need more complex components for their next-generation applications.”

Image courtesy of AFRL

Although beryllium is quite a rare metal, the market for it is expected to grow considerably over the next decade owing to its viability for use in the high-demand sectors mentioned above. In this regard, another factor favoring the potential growth of the metal’s use in AM applications — especially for the US market — is the fact that the US is by far the largest beryllium producer.

In fact, according to the US Geological Survey, the US is “one of only three countries that process beryllium ores and concentrates into beryllium products.” Thus, the standardization and scaling of AM applications for beryllium would yield a significant opportunity for the US to leverage AM to create a wholly domestic supply chain for the national manufacturing base.

Down the road, this could hold the greatest significance for sectors not even mentioned, most namely, semiconductors, given how crucial beryllium-oxide is in the manufacture of heat management components for electronics products. In this vein, it is highly relevant that both the AFRL and Materion are headquartered in Ohio, a state that a variety of major stakeholders — including DoD — are rapidly building up into a hub for advanced manufacturing of electronics.

Finally, then, this contract exemplifies the way in which agencies within the US military have taken the reshoring of US manufacturing into their own hands. In some cases, as with IperionX and its efforts to reshore US titanium output, this activity takes the form of essentially building entirely new supply chains from scratch. In cases like this one, the idea is to build upon an existing supply chain in a way that will allow the domestic manufacturing base to maximize that supply chain’s potential well into the future. To succeed, the overall effort of reshoring will require constant activity on both fronts, in order to turn weaknesses into strengths and to ensure that existing strengths continue to be national advantages.

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