Technology which could unlock the power of fusion energy

Fri 30 Sep 2016 01:00

Additive manufacturing is about to revolutionise the industry. The technique enables advanced components, which were previously complex and costly to produce, to be made in a fraction of the time. Sports Tech Research Centre is engaged in world-leading research into additive manufacturing of metal, and its progress could play a vital role in the development of fusion energy, among other advances.

Sports Tech Research Centre

In order to produce advanced components, for example, for the engineering industry or healthcare applications, it has previously been necessary to make simple sub-components which are subsequently joined together. This is a costly process, involving multiple phases, while it is difficult to achieve the perfect result. Additive manufacturing involves programming a machine to lay thin layers of material based on a 3D drawing, enabling creation of the entire advanced component in a single unit. This method can both save time and provide better results. The technology is already utilised throughout the industry.

- The market is currently growing by around 30 percent a year, and in some sectors, such as aviation and healthcare, the technology has already proved revolutionary. The technique has been mainly used for plastics up to now, but what makes us unique is that we’re working with metal, explains Lars-Erik Rännar, a researcher at Mid Sweden University’s Sports Tech Research Centre.

Used in the aviation industry

There are two predominant methods for additive manufacturing in metal: laser and electron beam melting. The Sports Tech Research Centre is a world leader when it comes to the latter technique, working in close quarters with a number of companies within the region and beyond. At present, around 10 different types of metal can be handled.

- This is a clear limitation, since there are tens of thousands of metallic materials which could  potentially be of interest. We work primarily with titanium and grade 316 stainless steel, which is common in the industry, yet over the last couple of years we’ve also been considering developing new metals specifically customised to different applications, explains Rännar.

The new metals could work extremely well in their specific fields, but prove worthless for most other applications.

- I think it will only be when we begin using many more, increasingly specialized materials that we’ll see a genuine revolution in additive manufacturing of metal. However, the technique is already used by firms such as Boeing and Airbus in the production of critical components. Some Swedish companies are also using the technology. Siemens, in Finspång, uses additive methods in order to repair parts for its compressors, while VBN Components has produced tools which last twice as long as conventional equivalents.

Unique research

In southern France, as many as 35 nations are joining forces on the construction of a device which contains one of the most advanced, powerful and expensive machines ever built. Called ITER, the project’s rationale is to be the first to test fusion energy on a large scale. Extraction of fusion energy generates heat of up to 150 million degrees. Many large, advanced and extremely durable components are required to handle this, and the challenge is to devise a cost-effective manufacturing process for this purpose. Stefan Wikman is Project Manager at Fusion for Energy, which coordinates the EU funding for the ITER project.

- Up to now, additive manufacturing has been concerned with small components, such as implants. Ours are substantially larger – measuring up to one metre – and may require as many as 15 different manufacturing phases at present. This is costly, he explains.

Yet by learning lessons from the additive processes devised for smaller components, researchers have made some progress. According to Stefan Wikman, Swedish research into additive manufacturing – with Sports Tech Research Centre at Mid Sweden University playing a prominent role – is unique.

- The collaboration between multiple universities and institutes in Sweden is unique, which is why our attention was drawn to them. We’ve now contributed funds to a project which is focused on manufacturing large, complex components.

160 billion

The cost of building ITER is estimated at SEK 160 billion, which is why it is vital that no mistakes are made. Wikman believes the Swedish companies which produce machinery for additive manufacturing acknowledge that there is now a demand for new, larger machines which can be used to make larger components, such as those required for ITER.

Fusion energy remains a relatively distant prospect though, and in the coming years, other areas of the energy sector are set to be more appealing from a commercial perspective, argues Wikman.

- It is possible for existing industry sectors to cut their costs as well as to reduce the number of machines and manufacturing phases used. Those companies who make this work will become more competitive.


The page was updated 11/13/2017