Advanced materials specialist 6K has been awarded a Phase Two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program from the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to commercialize a domestic closed-loop supply chain producing high-performance metal powders from scrap sources.
Springboarding on from the success of Phase One, the latest program will utilize 6K’s proprietary microwave plasma platform, UniMelt, to source and reclaim nickel superalloy scrap components and convert them into aerospace-grade powders. These powders will then be used to 3D print real-world parts to demonstrate functionality in test beds or systems.
“As a company, we are certainly pleased with the award, but more importantly, we’re proud as an organization to help our country create and control a domestic supply for alloys such as nickel used for emerging production methods like additive manufacturing,” said Dr. Aaron Bent, CEO of 6K.
“The recent Covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of controlling supply chain and the renewed needs for domestic production to avoid interruption of critical supplies.”
6K’s UniMelt plasma production system
6K’s patented UniMelt system cleans, prepares, and spheroidizes scrap alloys such as nickel and titanium into high-quality metal powders suitable for 3D printing, metal injection molding, and other powder metallurgy production processes. Scrap metals from defense machine shops, ‘boneyards’, and other sources can be used as feedstock for the UniMelt system, the aim being to provide the U.S. military with a secure and traceable domestic supply of important materials and therefore reduce the reliance on foreign sourcing.
6K has been gaining the support of U.S Congress members for its efforts in this area, one of whom is Congressman Guy Reschenthaler. “Southwestern Pennsylvania’s job creators, innovators, and hardworking employees are critical to our national defense and efforts to provide vital resources to our warfighters,” he said. “I was proud to secure funding to reduce dependence on foreign titanium and utilize American ingenuity to protect our national security.”
How the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) benefits
Superalloys, such as those able to be repurposed through 6K’s UniMelt system, are commonly used in the propulsion and heat mitigation components found in aircraft and rocket engines, gas turbines, oil and gas equipment, and heat exchangers. An important element of this Phase Two program is the limited domestic availability of these superalloys in the U.S., leading to a reliance on foreign supply.
Not only will 6K’s UniMelt system provide greater availability of superalloys through reclaiming end-of-life components and used powders, it will also facilitate a closed-loop production process with known and traceable material quality. Recycling previously qualified DoD parts and shop scrap will improve the consistency of parts and significantly reduce unexpected part anomalies.
UniMelt will also enable the DoD to develop and adopt additive manufacturing processes at a faster pace to create parts with novel functionality and reduce engineering cycles. Using already certified scrap as raw material will significantly reduce the material cost of goods for the newly manufactured parts, providing a healthy return on investment (ROI) for the department.
3D printing and the Circular Economy
Circular Economy is a concept that seeks to make optimum use of resources in order to avoid waste. According to the 2016 Imagine 2050 report by Veolia, food and beverage, manufacturing and chemical companies in the UK alone are standing on a mine of wasted materials and energy worth $5 billion. According to the report, these three industries have an enormous potential to reduce their waste and in the process generate new revenue streams.
As demonstrated by 6K, 3D printing can help facilitate companies’ aims to embed a circular economy approach within their processes. Initiatives in the food sector to facilitate this have been ongoing for several years, such as the recently concluded BARBARA Project which produced bio-based materials suitable for 3D printing prototypes in the automotive and construction sectors from food waste and agricultural by-products. Meanwhile, bioplastics derived from coffee powder and orange peel have been successfully fabricated to replace traditional petroleum-based PET, while machine learning, biotechnology, and microbial engineering have been combined to convert food waste into biodegradable PHAs.
Elsewhere, the circular economy approach has also been applied in the construction sector by Italian 3D printer manufacturer WASP. The firm 3D printed an eco-house created with sustainable natural materials, first unveiled in 2018, using a material mixture compiled of 25% local soil, 40% straw chopped rice, 25% rice husk, and 10% hydraulic lime.
Earlier this year, researchers from the I-Form Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Dublin investigated the effects of powder recycling on stainless steel 3161, while others from Hellenic Mediterranean University explored the changes in ABS filament’s mechanical properties in response to recycling.
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Featured image shows 6K’s patented UniMelt microwave plasma platform. Image via 6K.