A novel method to 3D print components for nuclear reactors, developed by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has been licensed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation, or USNC.
The technology uses a sophisticated additive manufacturing technique to print refractory materials, which are highly resistant to extreme heat and degradation, into components with complex shapes needed for advanced nuclear reactor designs.
USNC will incorporate this method to boost their mission to develop and deploy nuclear-based, energy-generating equipment that is safe, commercially competitive and simple to use.
The long-time Seattle-based collaborator also plans to expand its operations into East Tennessee to take advantage of proximity to ORNL’s expertise while scaling up production of specialty components for nuclear and industrial applications.
“This technology is ideal for manufacturing structure and core components for USNC’s advanced reactor designs,” Kurt Terrani, USNC executive vice president, said.
Terrani came to USNC from ORNL where he was technical director of the lab’s Transformational Challenge Reactor program, leveraging expertise at the lab’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility with leadership in nuclear technology to pilot the concept of 3D printing components for energy applications.
“It’s rewarding to see the transition from basic concept to a more mature technology that is actively being developed and deployed by our industry partners,” said Jeremy Busby, director of ORNL’s Nuclear Energy and Fuel Cycle division. “This is exactly the sort of impact that ORNL strives to make for our energy portfolio.”
USNC’s existing advanced nuclear systems, Terrani said, are designed to deliver the highest levels of safety and reliability. While the company is currently meeting that goal, “we don’t stop there.”
“We also utilize materials in our reactor cores that can withstand very harsh environments and high temperatures and don’t result in any degradation,” he said. “We engineer multiple redundant barriers against any potential release of radiation through fundamental application of nuclear engineering and materials science.”
USNC’s refractory material of choice for nuclear reactor core components is silicon carbide, a high-temperature-resistant ceramic that has been tested and proven to be radiation tolerant. Yet, traditional machining of silicon carbide into parts for a reactor are so time-intensive and expensive that it’s nearly impossible.
The ORNL-developed alternative combines binder jet printing as the additive manufacturing technique and a ceramic production process called chemical vapor infiltration, which will allow USNC to make components more efficiently with desired complex shapes, such as fluid channels in a heat exchanger.
“This is the holy grail of additive, that you can do things faster, that are in geometries that were previously very difficult or impossible with conventional manufacturing methods,” Terrani said.
USNC’s new Pilot Fuel Manufacturing, or PFM, facility will be located at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, which is home of the former K-25 plant and mere minutes from ORNL’s main campus. The energy company plans to continue its collaboration with ORNL.
“We look forward to continuing our strong relationship with ORNL,” said Francesco Venneri, chief executive officer of USNC. “Proximity to the lab and its world-class scientists and facilities allow us easy access to expertise in reactor core technologies and additive manufacturing, as well as the latest in radiation, fuels and materials research, all of which benefit USNC’s commitment to bring safe, reliable and secure nuclear energy to world markets.” USNC and ORNL also signed a Memorandum of Understanding in September on advanced nuclear fuel and reactor development activities.
Along with Terrani, other inventors of this technology include ORNL’s Brian Jolly and Michael Trammel. Enabled through ORNL’s entrepreneurial leave program, Jolly and Trammell joined USNC as group leaders for Chemical Vapor Processing and Additive Manufacturing, respectively, to participate in full commercialization of their intellectual property.
The Transformational Challenge Reactor program was supported by DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy and made possible by the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL. The MDF is supported by the Advanced Manufacturing Office within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.