Credit: Michaela Bluedorn/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Remember when I told you that tungsten’s hardness and extremely high melting point have always made it difficult to process via additive manufacturing technologies?  Add to that the fact that the development of defects during the manufacturing process increases the complexity of achieving a 3D printed part with desired properties.

Well, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have explored a way to address these challenges by producing the first defect-free complex tungsten parts for use in extreme environments. The accomplishment could have positive implications for clean-energy technologies such as fusion energy.

Interestingly, this high melting point makes it ideal for fusion reactors where plasma temperatures exceed 180 million degrees Fahrenheit. In comparison, the sun’s center is about 27 million degrees Fahrenheit.

In its pure form, tungsten is brittle at room temperature and easily shatters. To counter this, ORNL researchers developed an electron-beam 3D printer to deposit tungsten, layer by layer, into precise three-dimensional shapes. This technology uses a magnetically directed stream of particles in a high-vacuum enclosure to melt and bind metal powder into a solid-metal object. The vacuum environment reduces foreign material contamination and residual stress formation.

Electron-beam additive manufacturing is promising for the processing of complex tungsten geometries,” said ORNL’s Michael Kirka. (This is interesting because, so far we had only seen LPBF as a potential technology to process tungsten).

This is an important step for expanding the use of temperature-resistant metals in energy resources that will support a sustainable, carbon-free future,” he adds.

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