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University of Pittsburgh awarded $1M to advance AM for nuclear applications

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The University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering has received funding of $1 million to advance additive manufacturing processes for the production of nuclear plant components. The funding was awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy’s Nuclear Energy Enabling Technologies program (NEET).

Up until now, the nuclear energy sector has been somewhat limited in its adoption of 3D printing. Though the potential is there, certain challenges within AM, such as the cost and complexity of removing supports (or the impossibility of removing internal supports), have hindered the manufacturing technology’s applications in the field.

It is these challenges and others that the University of Pittsburgh engineers will be investigating with their new grant. The research, led by associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science (MEMS) Albert To, will specifically seek to develop advanced dissolvable supports as well as greater topology optimization and improved microstructure design for additive manufacturing. The goal is to enable the production of nuclear components that are affordable, have minimal distortion and which demonstrate greater structural integrity.

“Many gaps still remain in the scientific understanding of additive manufacturing, most especially the optimization of the assembly process while reducing build failure and cost,” explained Dr. To and Dr. Wei Xiong, a co-investigator and assistant professors of MEMS at Pitt. “Removing internal support structures in complex additive manufactured components via post-machining is costly and sometimes impossible. By integrating dissolvable supports, topology optimization, microstructure design, we have an opportunity to drastically reduce post-processing costs for AM components, while ensuring manufacturability of designs with complex internal features like those needed in the nuclear industry.”

The research is also being undertaken by Dr. Owen Hildreth, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who says that post-processing can account for up to 70% of additive manufacturing costs with support removal being one of the most expensive steps. By developing dissolvable supports, the team believes it can drastically reduce post-processing costs.

“Our dissolvable support technology enables consolidation of the many manufacturing steps currently required for complex nuclear components into one AM assembly,” said Dr. Hildreth. “This will reduce manufacturing costs by 20% and improve manufacturing schedules by at least six months. This work will help bring dissolvable supports to not just nuclear applications, but to the broader metal AM community so that costs can be significantly reduced.”

“Metal AM is projected to be a $21.2 billion industry in five years, and these batch-processable dissolvable supports could save the industry $10 billion while also expanding design freedom and reducing post-processing machining,” Dr. Hildreth added.

The research will be supported through partnerships with Curtiss-Wright Corporation and Jason Goldsmith at Kennametal Inc. and is primarily funded through the $1 million in NEET funding. The award is one of five NEET Crosscutting Technologies projects which are led by the DOE national laboratories. The ultimate goal of the project and its fellow NEET initiatives is to overcome limitations in the nuclear sector.

“Because nuclear energy is such a vital part of our nation’s energy portfolio, these investments are necessary to ensuring that future generations of Americans will continue to benefit from safe, clean, reliable, and resilient nuclear energy,” concluded Ed McGinnis, the DOE’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy. “Our commitment to providing researchers with access to the fundamental infrastructure and capabilities needed to develop advanced nuclear technologies is critical.”

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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