Additive Manufacturing Advances the Energy Industry
Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, has been around for decades. Thought of primarily as a prototyping tool in its earlier days, this technology has exploded in recent years. Fueled by a revolution in printer technology and materials, the field of AM has advanced into a realm many would have considered science fiction just a few years ago. From printing structures as massive and robust as the DFAB House in the Netherlands, to creating structures as complex and detailed as the recent 17-foot (517 cm) replica of Michelangelo’s David printed by a team of researchers in Italy, this technology has clearly come a long way.
Now the race is on to find applications in as many fields as possible for this disruptive technology, saving on material costs, making objects more efficiently and sustainably, and perhaps most of all, building and creating things more quickly. In this regard, the energy industry is no different than any other. But given the need to keep the world’s lights on and the power flowing, the needs of this industry may be more urgent than most.
The committee on additive manufacturing technologies (F42) recently formed a new subsection of the subcommittee on applications (F42.07) to address these energy-related AM standards needs. Officially launched in April, the mission of the subsection on energy (F42.07.10) is to bring all of the industry’s stakeholders to the table to begin creating a standards framework that will help AM technologies become a mainstream part of the energy industry.
The field of nuclear energy presents a unique opportunity to use AM. Ole Geisen, co-chair of the new energy subsection and head of engineering services for additive manufacturing at Siemens Energy, believes that nuclear power may be the next field to make AM an integral part of its supply chain. “Nuclear has a shot [at adopting AM], particularly for spare parts or replacement products,” he says. “There’s a clear need and there’s a clear pull to get the standardization straight because they rely on this.”
One big reason for the natural fit between AM and nuclear may come as a surprise to many: With the average nuclear facility in operation for 40 years or more, many of the parts needed to maintain nuclear facilities simply don’t exist any longer. “Recognizing that when the plants were actually designed and built in the mid-1960s, early 1970s, and came online somewhere in the early-1970s to mid-1980s, you’re potentially dealing with obsolescence issues,” says Robert Tregoning, Ph.D., senior technical adviser for materials engineering in the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He is also a member of the committee on fatigue and fracture (E08). “What the nuclear industry has often done to address obsolescence in the past is they’ve either tried to cannibalize those components from defunct plants or maintain a stockpile in their inventory. But with additive manufacturing and 3D printing, you can potentially create them through reverse engineering. You may not even need the original design drawings.”
The other reason AM is such a natural fit for the nuclear industry comes down to cost. The nuclear industry shares this reasoning with many other industries, but the degree of urgency may be greater with nuclear, as the industry’s rule of thumb states that each day a nuclear facility is down and not producing power costs its owner approximately $1 million. In an industry where the production of replacement parts can take months in some cases, the ability to additively manufacture and install them quickly is an enormous benefit.
As Tregoning says, “If the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] is not around, or you don’t have anything in your supply chain, the notion of being able to make something relatively quickly using the 3D printing process is a savior.”
The standards that could potentially be developed and/or revised by the energy subsection will be critical in turning the dream of those 3D printed parts into a reality. In addition to streamlining and easing the regulatory approval process in the nuclear field — which can be lengthy — standards will also assure quality and facilitate collaboration.
The nuclear industry is very close to making additive part of its regular supply chains.
“A key component of the nuclear industry has always been the ability to say: ‘Ok, if I have this level of quality, I’m going to get an acceptable level of performance,’” says Tregoning. “And the only way you can guarantee acceptable levels of quality is through standardization. So I think what we’re seeing now in the nuclear community as it transitions to 3D printing is that there is a dearth of existing standards to rely on for producing quality components.”
Frank Schoofs, Ph.D., is energy innovation section leader with the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority and along with Geisen, co-chair of the energy subsection. Schoofs adds that the extreme conditions present in nuclear fusion energy devices (his area of focus) mean that replacement parts are complex and take time to manufacture. 3D printing on-site could change this. “I think specifically for nuclear fusion or fusion energy, the key is that we need materials and components performing in extreme conditions. Because the conditions in the reactor are so extreme in terms of the amount of heat that is being generated, you need these advanced structures; exotic alloys.”
Schoofs also cites an additional factor that is well known in the nuclear industry: regulatory acceptance. The standards work that will be done in F42.07.10, and the stakeholders who will be brought together by the subsection will help smooth the process. “But I think it’s regulatory acceptance [that will be a challenge], which is difficult worldwide in terms of safety and so on. This is why we need to make sure that they [regulatory bodies] are involved from the start.”
Renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, is similar in many ways to nuclear with regard to incorporating AM into the supply chain. Just as in the nuclear industry, a lengthy wait for a replacement part — or having wind turbines or solar panels out of commission entirely — costs the renewable industry revenue. So having the ability to print parts on-site and keep operations online is similarly critical. Geisen points out that a good example of this is off-shore wind farms, where distance can be a factor for supply chains.
However, in an industry that is seeing rapid innovation and technological advancements occurring almost daily, AM may be a tool that helps the renewable energy industry continually optimize performance and improve time to market.
Geisen says this is where he sees the most potential for AM in the field of renewable energy. “For wind turbines, for example, you can add 3D printed, high-complexity features to the blades to help increase the efficiency, reduce the noise, this type of thing. Concrete 3D printing for wind turbine towers and AM for wind turbine blade molds are being considered as well.”
Traditional fossil-powered energy recently provided a great real-world success in terms of using AM in its supply chain. Geisen relates that in 2015, Siemens researchers worked with a natural gas facility and were able to manufacture a burner head for use in a gas turbine and put it into actual industrial practice. As an internal white paper states: “The SGT-1000F burner head out of Inconel 625 is the first fully qualified serial component in the Siemens portfolio made out of L-PBF laser powder bed fusion), an AM technique. This technology is now used to provide burner head spares on demand for the entire SGT-1000F fleet.”
The implications of this success were clear. A cost-savings was realized and trust in AM technology was built. And the technology has seen wider acceptance in the years since. Geisen says, “This is five, six years back, and these were the first parts that we qualified, but it was at that time that all the other fossil fuel players jumped on additive and started qualifying the first parts.” Since then, multiple AM parts have been qualified for gas turbines to improve the supply chain and to increase the efficiency of entire engines with advanced redesigns.
Today, the field of fossil fuels is seen as having great potential for the continued use of AM and for further incorporation into the supply chain. Global engine fleets need service to provide flexible power during the energy transition, and new, advanced systems must be developed to leverage the addition of hydrogen to the energy mix.
The Role of Standards
All of these experts agree that standardization is the key to the growth and further adoption of AM/3D printing in the energy industry. Without the standards that will be developed by F42’s energy subsection, the industry simply cannot advance.
“That’s where the power of having a neutral, not-for-profit organization like ASTM can play a role,” says Schoofs. “All these different players within a particular field of energy can say: ‘We all have this need in order to get our products approved for the market.’ And then they come together and define what that need is and define a standard around that. I think that would be a fantastic benefit to come out of
Geisen puts it more bluntly. “If you try to do it [advance the market] without standards for a new technology, you will struggle.” It’s clear that the role of the energy subsection will be critical to the future of AM in this field, and the convening of major stakeholders from industry, academia, regulatory, and more will provide a unique forum for the creation of the standards that will help guide the field into the future. ■
Additive manufacturing in the energy industry will be a major topic of interest at this year’s International Conference on Additive Manufacturing (ICAM 2021), organized by ASTM’s Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence (AM CoE). REGISTER TODAY.