Sep 21, 2017 | By Benedict
Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) are using 3D printing in a new method for producing advanced nuclear fuels. Producing U3Si2 fuels with Additive Manufacturing as an Alternative Fabrication Technique (AMAFT) could improve both fuel cycle economics and safety.
Unlike coal power (loathed by most) and green energy (approved of by most), nuclear remains a decidedly divisive form of energy. In principle, it’s an incredibly effective and environmentally friendly solution to our growing energy needs, producing none of the harmful emissions that are crippling the atmosphere in places like China.
It’s just that the “worst case scenario” of nuclear power is, well, the absolute worst, as the world has witnessed multiple times during events like the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It’s easy to forget that the latter case only happened five years ago.
This apprehension about nuclear power—which also concerns the problem of dumping nuclear waste underground—means that scientists’ efforts to improve the safety of nuclear power are nearly always appreciated by the entire scientific community. New research being carried out at INL looks like it could be the latest example, with scientists claiming a new additive manufacturing technique could improve both the safety and efficiency of nuclear power.
It’s called Additive Manufacturing as an Alternative Fabrication Technique, or AMAFT for short, and it’s a way of producing advanced nuclear fuels like uranium silicide (U3Si2) for nuclear reactors. The method was developed by INL’s Dr Isabella Van Rooyen and Dr Clemente Parga, alongside Ed Lahoda of Westinghouse, a power plant building company.
The researchers developed their new 3D printing technique to work with U3Si2 fuels, believing these substances to offer particular safety benefits due to their density and thermal conductivity—factors in which the fuels trump the uranium dioxide (UO2) fuels used in most nuclear plants.
U3Si2 can improve both the safety and efficiency of a nuclear reactor, and with this new additive manufacturing technique used to produce them, INL is hoping that the fuel could eventually replace the more volatile uranium dioxide (UO2) fuels in power plants the world over. And the technique also offers a number of benefits besides safety.
“AMAFT technology uses a novel hybrid additive manufacturing process, which means we combine some traditional and some additive manufacturing processes to reduce the number of steps—and therefore the time and cost—involved in producing fuel for power reactors,” explained Van Rooyen.
3D printing a Zr3Si2 surrogate material from Zirconium and Silicon powder mixtures
AMAFT consists of a “hybrid laser engineering shaping” process that creates a small melt pool from multiple powder sources. This can be used to form a pellet of dense U3Si2 fuel. Compare this to traditional fuel production techniques, which involve multiple steps, and it’s easy to see how INL’s method could turn heads in the nuclear world.
AMAFT isn’t just faster and safer than other nuclear fuel production options; it’s also highly versatile. The INL researchers say that AMAFT works with any uranium-based feedstock, which could make it suitable for a variety of purposes. This versatility also provides flexibility for fabricators, allowing them to use several raw material sources.
Excitingly, the new 3D printing process for nuclear fuel is already well on the way to commercialization.
This is largely thanks to INL’s involvement with the DOE’s Energy I-Corps initiative, which encourages entrepreneurship at DOE labs by pairing DOE researchers with industry experts, giving the scientists an idea of how to turn their work into a marketable product.
The aforementioned Lahoda, of (currently bankrupt) power plant builder Westinghouse, acted as Van Rooyen and Parga’s mentor.
“It was a surprise to learn how critical partnerships would be to the overall commercialization process,” Van Rooyen said. “We need partners to help with qualification, standards, process development, and characterization. Energy I-Corps was an opportunity to think outside the box from our normal everyday research mindset.”
INL is the fifth-largest employer in Idaho, with 3,900 employees and more than 350 interns.
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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