GE’s grape-shaped 3D printed heat exchanger tested at 900°C

GE Research, the R&D wing of American conglomerate GE, has successfully tested a novel 3D printed heat exchanger prototype at temperatures of up to 900°C. 

Designed alongside the University of Maryland and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), GE Research’s subscale thermal regulation device features a unique grape-like geometry that provides it with extreme heat and pressure resistance qualities. 

Having now passed initial trials at temperatures which exceed the capabilities of current state-of-the-art devices by more than 200°C, GE Research says that its prototype could find applications within the energy sector, “enabling cleaner, more efficient power generation in both existing and next-generation power plants and jet engine platforms.” 

According to Lana Osusky, a Lead Engineer at GE Research, additive manufacturing has played an essential role in the early successes of the project. “The design freedom afforded by 3D printing processes and design tools is allowing us to more rapidly develop, build and test new heat exchanger designs that were previously not possible,” she said. 

“We may not want to eat these grapes, but we still tasted victory when we completed this key milestone.”

GE Research and 3D printing 

As the R&D arm of a multinational conglomerate, GE Research is engaged in wide-ranging projects varying from advanced robotics to biologics, but it does also house a strong 3D printing team that’s focused on developing materials, mechanical processes and optics that enhance the technology’s potential, particularly within defense applications. 

Under its previous guise, GE Global Research, the business was backed by America Makes to develop a commercial-grade metal 3D printer with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). The project closely followed GE Research’s U.S. Navy contract, which saw it awarded $9 million to develop a means of digitally twinning naval parts that accelerates the production of mission-critical equipment.

More recently, GE Research’s Forge Lab devised a secure 3D printing blockchain network capable of encrypting data in a way that protects it from cyber attacks, and received further military funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to additive manufacture a system that produces water ‘out of thin air.’ 

Given that GE has a storied history in the aerospace sector, and its GE Aviation division has proactively adopted 3D printing, it’s hardly surprising that its GE Research segment has now developed an optimized heat regulation device, which it says could “break efficiency barriers” and “reduce carbon emissions” during flight.

GE Research's 3D printed heat exchanger prototype.
GE Research’s 3D printed subscale heat exchanger prototype. Image via GE Research.

Reaching a thermal milestone 

Since the start of 2019, GE Research has been developing its novel heat exchanger via ARPA-E’s High Intensity Thermal Exchange through Materials and Manufacturing Processes or ‘HITEMMP’ program. In principle, the $3.1 million project is designed to yield a compact temperature and pressure-resistant heat exchanger that’s capable of running power turbines and jet engines with greater efficiency. 

During the program, an interdisciplinary team of experts led by Osusky has leveraged a nickel superalloy designed by GE Research, to create what they’ve dubbed the ‘UPHEAT’ heat exchanger. Developed through numerous simulation, prototyping and testing runs, the scientists’ 3D printed device features a collection of thin-walled unit cells, which loosely resemble grapes. 

Working with ORNL, a known specialist in corrosion science, GE Research has now tested the thermal resistance of its temperature-regulating device, which not only met the project’s initial goal of 900°C but achieved close to half its targeted pressure of 3626 psi, and the team intends to deliver a fully-compliant demonstrator prototype by Q1 2022. 

“From conditioning the air you breathe on an airplane to keeping your car’s engine, computer, and other electronics cool, heat exchangers perform important functions and are ever-present in our daily lives,” concluded GE in its release. “For GE, these devices are critical to delivering large-scale power generation and jet propulsion for the world in the cleanest, most efficient ways possible.”

Optimizing heat exchanger design 

Over the last three years, the design flexibility unlocked by 3D printing has increasingly seen the technology used to develop heat exchangers with unique geometries and thermal resistance qualities. In February 2021, for instance, 3D Systems was contracted to help produce 3D printed topologically-optimized heat exchangers for the U.S. Army.

Back in May 2019, ARPA-E also awarded Michigan State University $2.3 million to develop a novel additive manufactured heat exchanger for power generation applications. Using LPBF-suited alloys, the team is working towards the creation of a scalable, compact thermal device that’s highly-resistant to corrosion and high temperatures.

Solid-state metal 3D printing specialist Fabrisonic, meanwhile, has continually worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to 3D print space-ready heat exchangers. Earlier this month, the firm was able to help design a new single-piece part that eliminates dozens of small components and joints that could potentially fail during long missions. 

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Featured image shows GE Research’s 3D printed subscale heat exchanger prototype. Image via GE Research.