Innovation That Matters

The design has been optimised for building in just three months | Photo source Oak Ridge National Laboratory

3D-printed nuclear reactor being developed

Agriculture & Energy

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is developing technology that would allow the 3D-printing of nuclear reactor cores

Spotted: Around the world, there is a growing realisation that nuclear energy is going to form an important component of the drive to rid the world of fossil fuels. Today, there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating globally, with another 50 in the planning stages. There is also a growing interest in small reactors — under 15 Mwe — to power remote communities. But what if those reactors could be 3D-printed? That was the question facing researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration Programme (TCR) at the ORNL has been working on a new approach to reactor design that uses additive technology to rapidly produce reactor cores. The system includes the use of integrated sensors and controls to reduce cost and increase efficiency.

The 3D-printing technology used by the ORNL’s team is not your standard desktop manufacturing process. The process takes around 40 hours to build a hexagonal structure. A laser is used to heat and melt the stainless steel, with temperatures of the melt pool reaching over 1,400 C. Thermal imaging is used to monitor the deposition of the material.

The programme hopes to demonstrate how 3D-printing technology can be used to rapidly innovate in nuclear reactor design and production. Kurt Terrani, TCR technical director, has said: “By using 3D printing, we can use technology and materials that the nuclear community has been unable to capitalize on in the last several decades. This includes sensors for near-autonomous control and a library of data and a new and accelerated approach to qualification that will benefit the entire nuclear community.”

While the ORNL is unique in developing a 3D-printed nuclear reactor, innovations in additive manufacturing are coming thick and fast. At Springwise, we have recently covered a 3D-printed commercial apartment building and 3D-printed chicken nuggets.

Written By: Lisa Magloff

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