The Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) has licensed a novel method to 3D print components for nuclear reactors using refractory materials such as silicon carbide.
Developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the method combines binder jet 3D printing techniques with a chemical vapor infiltration process that enables the creation of reactor components more efficiently and with greater complexity.
Through licensing the method, USNC hopes to drive forward its mission to develop and deploy nuclear-based energy-generating equipment that is not only safe and simple to use, but is also commercially competitive.
“It’s rewarding to see the transition from basic concept to a more mature technology that is actively being developed and deployed by our industry partners,” said Jeremy Busby, Director of ORNL’s Nuclear Energy and Fuel Cycle division.
“This is exactly the sort of impact that ORNL strives to make for our energy portfolio.”
3D printing for nuclear energy generation
According to the World Nuclear Energy Association, nuclear energy currently provides nearly 20 percent of the US’ electricity supply. However, within the next 30 years many current nuclear reactors will likely be retired as they are based on 70-year-old light water technology.
To address this issue, ORNL is leading the Transformational Challenge Reactor (TCR), supported by the US Department of Energy (DoE) program to explore faster and cheaper nuclear energy distribution within the US in order to reduce manufacturing costs and lead times and to improve safety. As part of the program, ORNL is building a nuclear reactor core using, among other technologies, Direct Energy Deposition (DED) 3D printing.
In 2020, Purdue University became a key contributor to the TCR program upon receiving an $800,000 grant from the DoE. As a result, Purdue is developing an Artificial Intelligence (AI) model to ensure nuclear-grade quality of the reactor core’s 3D printed components.
The TCR program has also seen ORNL develop its own novel 3D printing technology specifically for the production of nuclear reactor components. The process combines binder jetting and a ceramic production process to create components of complex shapes more efficiently, such as fluid channels within a heat exchanger.
The method also enables the printing of high-temperature alloys and refractory metals which, due to their resistance to extreme heat and degradation, are vital to the safe operation of nuclear reactor components.
Since initiating the TCR program, ORNL’s 3D printed nuclear reactor components have been installed at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama. Developed in partnership with nuclear fuel supplier Framatome, the four 3D printed fuel assembly brackets are currently under routine operating conditions at the plant.
Licensing the ORNL method
Under the new agreement, USNC will license ORNL’s 3D printing method to develop and deploy components for its advanced reactor designs. The corporation is also planning to expand its operations into East Tennessee to take be closer to ORNL’s expertise while scaling up the production of specialty components for nuclear and industrial applications.
“The technology is ideal for manufacturing structure and core components for USNC’s advanced reactor designs,” said Kurt Terrani, USNC Executive Vice President and who, before joining USNC, was Technical Director of ORNL’s TCR program.
“We also utilize materials in our reactor cores that can withstand very harsh environments and high temperatures and don’t result in any degradation,” he said. “We engineer multiple redundant barriers against any potential release of radiation through fundamental application of nuclear engineering and materials science.”
USNC manufactures its nuclear reactor core components from silicon carbide, a high-temperature-resistant ceramic that has reportedly been proved to be tolerant to radiation. However, machining reactor parts from silicon carbide is extremely time-intensive and expensive.
ORNL’s additive manufacturing method will enable USNC to manufacture components from silicon carbide more efficiently while achieving their desired complex shapes.
“This is the holy grail of additive, that you can do things faster, that are in geometries that were previously very difficult or impossible with conventional manufacturing methods,” added Terrani.
USNC’s new Pilot Fuel Manufacturing facility will be located at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, which is just a few minutes away from ORNL’s main campus. Through the move, the corporation aims to continue its partnership with ORNL and support the TCR program.
“We look forward to continuing our strong relationship with ORNL,” said Francesco Venneri, CEO of USNC. “Proximity to the lab and its world-class scientists and facilities allow us easy access to expertise in reactor core technologies and additive manufacturing, as well as the latest in radiation, fuels and materials research, all of which benefit USNC’s commitment to bring safe, reliable and secure nuclear energy to world markets.”
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Featured image shows USNC has licensed ORNL’s novel additive manufacturing method to produce complex nuclear reactor components. Photo via Carlos Jones/ORNL.