Following on from a 2021 Memorandum of Understanding between the organisations, the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), Seattle, Washington, USA, has licensed a hybrid method of additively manufacturing components for nuclear reactors from the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The technology uses Binder Jetting (BJT) to build refractory materials, which are highly resistant to extreme heat and degradation, into components with the complex shapes needed for advanced nuclear reactor designs.
The USNC intends to incorporate this method to boost its mission to develop and deploy nuclear-based, energy-generating equipment that is safe, commercially competitive and simple to use. The company has also outlined plans to expand its operations into Tennessee to take advantage of proximity to ORNL while scaling up its production of speciality components for nuclear and industrial applications.
“This technology is ideal for manufacturing structure and core components for USNC’s advanced reactor designs,” stated Kurt Terrani, USNC executive vice president. Terrani came to USNC from ORNL, where he was technical director of the lab’s Transformational Challenge Reactor programme, which aimed to pilot the concept of additively manufacturing components for energy applications.
USNC’s existing advanced nuclear systems, Terrani said, are designed to deliver the highest levels of safety and reliability, but, he continued, “We also utilise materials in our reactor cores that can withstand very harsh environments and high temperatures and don’t result in any degradation. We engineer multiple redundant barriers against any potential release of radiation through fundamental application of nuclear engineering and materials science.”
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. As traditional machining of silicon carbide would be time intensive and prohibitively expensive, ORNL developed its alternative process which combines BJT and a ceramic production process called chemical vapour infiltration. This is expected to allow USNC to make components more efficiently with desired complex shapes, such as fluid channels in a heat exchanger.
“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 added.
USNC’s new Pilot Fuel Manufacturing (PFM) facility will be located at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, which is home of the former K-25 plant and minutes from ORNL’s main campus. The energy company plans to continue its collaboration with ORNL.
“We look forward to continuing our strong relationship with ORNL,” stated Francesco Venneri, CEO of USNC. “Proximity to the lab and its world-class scientists and facilities allow us easy access to expertise in reactor core technologies and additive manufacturing, as well as the latest in radiation, fuels and materials research, all of which benefit USNC’s commitment to bring safe, reliable and secure nuclear energy to world markets.”
Along with Terrani, other inventors of this technology include ORNL’s Brian Jolly and Michael Trammel. Enabled through ORNL’s entrepreneurial leave programme, Jolly and Trammell joined USNC as group leaders for Chemical Vapor Processing and Additive Manufacturing, respectively, to participate in full commercialisation of their intellectual property.
The Transformational Challenge Reactor program was supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and made possible by the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL.
“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,” concluded Jeremy Busby, director of ORNL’s Nuclear Energy and Fuel Cycle division. “This is exactly the sort of impact that ORNL strives to make for our energy portfolio.”