QuesTek awarded $1.2M to develop new niobium-based alloys for 3D printed turbine blades

QuesTek Innovations, a computational materials design specialist, has been awarded $1.2M in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) to develop new niobium-based 3D printing alloys.

The company received the award from ARPA-E’s Ultrahigh Temperature Impervious Materials Advancing Turbine Efficiency (ULTIMATE) program, which aims to develop high-performance materials specifically for the production of gas turbine blades. The conditions these blades operate in are ones of extremely high stress and temperature.

As such, QuesTek’s functionally-graded alloys will be used to manufacture gas turbine blades for ultra-high temperature energy and aerospace applications, with the hopes that they will increase fuel efficiency via higher operating temperatures.

Dr. Dana Frankel, QuesTek’s Manager of Design and Product Development, states, “Designing a new turbine material with significantly better performance than current nickel-based superalloys is one of the biggest challenges facing the field of materials science today.”

Gas turbine engines experience extremely high temperatures and stresses. Photo via Pratt & Whitney.
Gas turbine engines experience extremely high temperatures and stresses. Photo via Pratt & Whitney.

Taking a computational approach

As advanced as metal 3D printing is, there are still a plethora of metallurgical issues preventing it from reaching mass adoption. For example, using certain conventional chemical and heat treatments on 3D printing alloys can often result in cracking during the printing process or poor mechanical properties post-printing, limiting the technology’s potential in regulated industries.

This is the hurdle QuesTek is trying to jump with its proprietary Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME) models. The company takes a computational approach to alloy development, using algorithms to modify materials for printability and optimize their respective heat treatments for improved performance.

Having completed over 50 government-funded projects, QuesTek has extensive experience in superalloy, refractory alloy, and high entropy alloy design, including aluminum, steel, nickel, and titanium-based alloys.

QuesTek has previously developed a high-temperature aluminum alloy for powder bed fusion. Photo via QuesTek.
QuesTek has previously developed a high-temperature aluminum alloy for powder bed fusion. Photo via QuesTek.

The implications of gas turbine efficiency

QuesTek’s niobium-based alloys will be going up against a number of already established state-of-the-art superalloys which are suitable for gas turbine blades. Unfortunately, many of these alloys have limited high-temperature stabilities or other issues affecting their 3D printability. This in turn places as a cap on the geometric freedom engineers are granted when designing and experimenting with new turbine blade types.

To add to this, since engine efficiency is largely determined by the maximum cycle temperature of a system, meaning it scales with operating temperature, QuesTek’s niobium-based alloys will directly improve gas turbine efficiencies in both jet engines and power plants. As well as the obvious economical benefits, the work is also set to decrease carbon emissions.

The company will work closely with turbine engine OEM Pratt & Whitney to define aerospace requirements, collaboratively design end-use components, and perform testing and qualification procedures. Furthermore, QuesTek will also work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 3D printing process development and the University of Minnesota for the development of high-temperature coatings.

Frankel concludes, “We’re excited for this opportunity to apply our proven computational materials design approach to develop a new refractory turbine alloy, paving the way for a step-change in turbine engine performance and efficiency.”

The 3D printing of critical engine components such as turbine blades is a relatively new application of the technology. In the maritime sector, defense contractor Naval Group recently manufactured an entirely 3D printed propeller for a French Navy ship.  Sporting a 2.5-meter span and five individual 200kg blades, the propeller is reportedly the largest additively manufactured thruster of its kind in the world.

Elsewhere, in Russia, the state-backed Advanced Research Foundation (FPI) and Federal State Unitary Enterprise (VIAM) have previously flight-tested their 3D printed MGTD-20 gas turbine engine. The 3D printed device reportedly halved the vehicle’s cost and reduced lead times by around 20x when compared to traditional manufacturing methods. With a maximum speed of 154 km/h, the motor was evaluated onboard a light Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

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Featured image shows a gas turbine engine. Photo via Pratt & Whitney.