Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), a Seattle-based reactor developer, has licensed an additive manufacturing technique developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to print refractory materials into structural and core components for the company’s microreactor designs.
USNC plans to build a pilot fuel manufacturing facility at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, home of the former K-25 plant. USNC and ORNL signed a memorandum of understanding in September 2021 on advanced nuclear fuel and reactor development activities.
Manufacturing leverage: “This technology is ideal for manufacturing structure and core components for USNC’s advanced reactor designs,” said Kurt Terrani, USNC executive vice president. Terrani came to USNC from ORNL, where he was technical director of the lab’s Transformational Challenge Reactor program, leveraging expertise at the lab’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility to pilot the concept of 3D printing components for energy applications. An article by Terrani published in the April 2020 issue of Nuclear News describes the TCR program in detail.
Jeremy Busby, director of ORNL’s Nuclear Energy and Fuel Cycle Division, said, “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. This is exactly the sort of impact that ORNL strives to make for our energy portfolio.”
The technology: USNC’s refractory material of choice for nuclear reactor core components is silicon carbide—a high-temperature–resistant ceramic that has been tested and proven to be radiation tolerant. While traditional machining of silicon carbide is difficult and expensive, the ORNL-developed alternative combines binder jet printing as the additive manufacturing technique and a ceramic production process called chemical vapor infiltration, which will allow USNC to make components more efficiently with desired complex shapes, such as fluid channels in a heat exchanger, according to ORNL.
“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,” Terrani said.
The MDF: ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, a 110,000-square-foot facility established in 2012, is a DOE user facility for early-stage research and development to improve the energy and material efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing. Research at the MDF focuses on manufacturing analysis and simulation, composites and polymer systems, metal powder systems, metrology and characterization, machine tooling, large-scale metal systems, and robotics and automation. The MDF is supported by the Advanced Manufacturing Office within the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.