We take a look at the top applications for 3D printers in power plants and power generation as 3D printers usher in a new revolution
3D printers have ushered in a new revolution for a myriad of industries, including automotive, manufacturing, aerospace, agriculture, and construction. The same can be said about the energy industry, with more plants and power generators turning to 3D printers as an invaluable tool for prototyping and production.
Additive manufacturing has allowed the power industry to produce complex components, use fewer materials, reduce waste, and lower energy consumption — leading to higher production efficiency and a smaller carbon footprint. According to a recent report from GlobalData, additive manufacturing has a myriad of applications, including conventional power, rechargeable batteries, solar panels, wind/gas turbines, and more. In this roundup, we will take a look at some of the exciting ways the power industry has used the versatile technology.
Siemens Produce Gas Turbines using Additive Manufacturing
Siemens has used 3D printing to produce a myriad of gas/steam turbine parts, including dry low emission (DLE) pre-mixer, oil-sealing rings, and turbine blades. Those blades need to be mechanically robust, as they undergo extreme stress and temperatures when in operation. The conglomerate company created the blades using a high-performing polycrystalline nickel superalloy powder, which was then tested in their STG-400 engine under full-load conditions. The blades held up running at 13,000 RPMs and withstood temperatures over 1,250 degrees Celsius.
GE 3D Printed Heat Shields and Vanes for Natural Gas Turbines
GE has also used 3D printing to produce turbine parts, in this case, for the Berlin Mitte power plant in Germany. The energy company produced first-stage heat shields and first-stage vanes used in their natural gas turbines, which now allow them to use less fuel and operate with greater efficiency. When fired up, traditional casted metal components burn red hot (operating at temperatures around 1,000 degrees Celsius) and are air-cooled using air blown through internal channels cut into the components. This type of cooling lowers their temperature — but with a trade-off in efficiency. By 3D printing those parts, intricate, complex channels can be integrated during the build process, thus retaining peak performance.
Air Force 3D Printed Solar Cells
The Air Force Research Laboratory created 3D printed solar cells utilizing Optomec’s 5-axis Aerosol Jet System and perovskite material, in this case, calcium titanium oxide. The AFRL used the system to automate the production of the cells to provide a more efficient production process, which was done by coating a flat surface with perovskite photovoltaic droplets using pre-defined CAD designs. The results returned a 15.4% power conversion efficiency, and their technique also allowed them to print on 3D surfaces, however, this yielded a reduced efficiency of 5.4%.
Researchers 3D Print Lithium-Ion Battery
Researchers from Duke University and Texas State have successfully developed a method to 3D print custom-sized lithium-ion batteries. The process involves infusing an electrolyte solution (ethyl methyl carbonate, propylene carbonate, and LiCIO 4), carbon nanotubes, and graphene with a polylactic acid (PLA) material to increase conductivity. The process allows the researchers to incorporate a lithium-ion battery into most anything; however, the tech is still in its infancy and it will take time before we see real-world applications.
Idaho National Labs Uses 3D Printing to Produce Nuclear Fuels
Researchers from Idaho National Laboratory have developed a new method of 3D printing nuclear fuels — using what they term AMAFT or additive manufacturing as an alternative fabrication technique. The technique allows scientists to produce advanced nuclear fuels, such as uranium silicide (U3Si2), for nuclear reactors. The process uses hybrid laser engineering shaping to melt a small pool of different powders to form a pellet of dense fuel material, which can then be used in reactors.
R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant Produces 3D Printed Tools on Site
Engineers at the R.E. Ginna Nuclear Power Plant in Wayne County, New York have taken to 3D printing to produce tools for onsite maintenance. An Ultimaker 3D printer was tasked to create a fuse-blocking device for “danger-tagging” fuses in their relay racks and main control board, which help prevent the spread of fuse clips during installation. They’ve also used it for manufacturing small tools for an equipment operator to use when changing filter paper on their R10A/11/12 and the R10B/13/14 skids. Plans are also in the works to create fire-resistant door chocks and different sized plugs to prevent leaks in fire-fighting and service water.
Engineers 3D Print Massive Wind Turbine Blade Mold
Engineers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and TPI Composites partnered to design a massive 3D-printed wind turbine blade mold to reduce the time it takes for a blade to be developed and tested — a process that can take up to 16-months. Sandia acted as project lead and designed the blade to be fabricated; TPI provided the structural design and CAD model; and Oak Ridge manufactured the 42-foot mold in sections, using their massive BAAM (big area additive manufacturing) 3D printer.
Verterra Energy’s Volturnus Water Turbine
Hydroelectric green-energy startup Verterra Energy is looking to harness the power of water by deploying their Volturnus-Pod turbines in rivers, oceans, and canals. According to the company, the V-Pods (deployed in groups of five) sit below the water’s surface and can capture enough power to supply 40 households. The V-Pods themselves are almost entirely 3D printed, using Aleph Objects’ LulzBot TAZ, and operate using a horizontal design that’s capable of harvesting energy and deflecting debris at the same time. Verterra Energy is currently looking for funding to bring their technology to market.
Smart Palm Trees Bring Power Charging and Wi-Fi to Dubai Beaches
Dubai-based startup Smart Palm has been deploying 3D-printed palm trees on the country’s beaches for the 2020 World Expo as part of their Smart City initiative. The smart trees are 3D printed with fiber-reinforced polymer and feature six main functions — a Wi-Fi hotspot, a 360-degree IR CCT camera/emergency call button for security, a touch screen for city information, multiple charging outlets for mobile devices, a digital display for public messages, and seating areas. The entire Smart Palm is powered by solar panels located on top of the palms.
Siemens 3D Prints Impeller for Nuclear Plant Fire Protection Pump
Siemens 3D prints a handful of replacement parts for all kinds of power plants. They were successful at producing and installing a 108-mm pump impeller for fire protection pumps at the Krsko Nuclear Power Plant, located in Slovenia. The company reverse-engineered the original (pictured above with prototype and finished product) that has been in operation since the plant’s commission in 1981 — as the original designs have long been lost. The digital twin is identical to the original, and Siemens states the new version is superior in its material makeup — which is expected to last longer with less wear.
These are just a handful of entries on what’s being done utilizing 3D printing for the power industry. Most are in the development area, with companies looking to improve plant or power generation performance and efficiency. It’s also not a bad idea to have a 3D printer on-hand to rapidly create tools that can help solve immediate issues which arise when least expected. The innovative technology has applications in every facet of the power industry — including conventional, renewable, and battery storage — and will continue to grow in the foreseeable future.