According to recent market research by J. Bromberger and R. Kelly, “Additive Manufacturing: A Long-Term Game Changer for Manufacturers,” McKinsey & Company Operations, 2017, the aerospace, automotive and healthcare industries are rapidly adopting additive manufacturing approaches involving the digital fabrication of mechanical geometries in a layer-by-layer fashion.
Examples of metal additive manufacturing (MAM) technologies include the laser cladding of consecutive metal powder layers or the jetting of metal powder into the focal beam of a laser that is manipulated to build a part from the bottom up. The related additive manufacturing market is expected to reach at least $20 billion annually by 2020. What’s more, there is also great potential for additive manufacturing in specialty chemicals and solar thermochemical energy by harnessing the power of modular chemical process intensification (MCPI) to reduce capital equipment costs.
Oregon State University (OSU) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL), in partnership with various industries in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, are learning to use additive manufacturing techniques to design and build microchannel chemical reactors and heat exchangers with five to 10 fold reductions in size and weight.
In the past, OSU has helped multiple companies fabricate intensified components and reactors, bringing them to the marketplace. However, the scale-up of intensified components is challenging for small companies, typically requiring prolonged development efforts with supply chain partners to demonstrate production using existing capabilities or capital investments in new manufacturing equipment.
The use of additive manufacturing can accelerate the adoption of new intensified technologies, especially within modular construction.
Currently, OSU and PNNL are working within the Module Manufacturing Focus Area (MMFA) of the RAPID Manufacturing Institute to advance a new solar thermochemical product to market in partnership with a spinout of PNNL called STARS Technology Corp. (STARS).
Through the RAPID grant, STARS will be setting up pilot production of STARS modules in support of field demonstrations. The STARS chemical conversion technology supports multiple applications, including solar-powered steam methane reforming (SMR), where solar-to-chemical efficiencies greater than 70% have been demonstrated, which is a world record, leading to an R&D 100 Award in 2014. In order to satisfy size and weight budgets on the solar nacelle at the focal point of the dish, multiple microchannel components are needed.
One of the goals of the project has been to help STARS establish a supply chain for key intensified microchannel components with minimal capital investment. One big barrier to advancing STARS technology to market has been the cost of these intensified components. Additional cost savings beyond conventional MAM methods are needed to penetrate larger utility-scale markets for chemical production.
For example, more than 70% of the cost-of-goods-sold for the heat exchanger is from capital and powder costs; lowering the cost of producing microchannel components using MAM requires new machine tools capable of addressing these cost drivers.
Efforts are being made at the OSU Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Institute (ATAMI) to modify a MAM tool capable of digitally manipulating the properties of materials by jetting additives into the powder bed, using an inkjet print head, prior to laser densification.
In the RAPID program, this tool will be used to develop new metal-matrix-composites with high-temperature strength and corrosion resistance capable of cutting component costs by 30%.
More recently, the state of Oregon has provided a $1 million high-impact opportunity project (HIOP) over the next 18 months to expand the capabilities of Oregon’s current metal additive manufacturing ecosystem within the state.
The goal of the HIOP is to develop new metal additive manufacturing processes, machine tools and materials within the state. These funds will be used to leverage the current RAPID grant where the hybrid machine being developed will be used to explore the development of Ni-based superalloys with enhanced thermal conductivity.
These efforts will take advantage of capabilities to selectively dope or alloy the microstructure of metal parts during the build cycle, leading to the ability to customize material properties within a single build.
The ability to tailor properties within metals will lead to new design freedoms and radical changes in the design of smaller, lighter weight reactor components possessing unique physical properties. By increasing the value of the components being produced, component manufacturers can afford the large capital expenses associated with additive manufacturing tools.
In this manner, state investments leveraging RAPID-funded projects are providing the opportunity to establish new supply chains not only for intensified components in support of modular chemical process intensification, but also for use in future aerospace and biomedical insert markets.
The cumulative economic impact to these industries over time could be billions of dollars and thousands of high-wage jobs.