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3D printing clean(er) and more sustainable energy and parts

Can AM play a part in tomorrow’s sustainable energy mix and will it be worth it?

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Establishing additive manufacturing as a truly sustainable production method inevitably entails powering tomorrow’s 3D printers. Small polymer systems require minimal power, but farms of thousands of machines, larger PBF systems and especially metal systems do and will require massive amounts of energy to function. 3D printing can facilitate distributed manufacturing, which means that products will be less reliable on transportation, so the main challenge in making AM more sustainable is by powering 3D printers using clean energy.

Unfortunately, there are no truly clean energy sources today. Even renewables often require fossil fuels to function or are accompanied by practices that can be damaging to the environment, such as rare earth mineral mining for batteries or dam construction. On the opposite side of the spectrum, even the “dirtiest” fossil fuels like oil and gas can be extracted in more sustainable ways and burnt more cleanly, if appropriate measures are taken. And nuclear, the scariest of all fuels, may actually be the cleanest in the long run, especially if fourth-generation fast neutron reactors, now in the final stages of development, live up to their promise of rapidly decaying nuclear waste. The bottom line is that there is no single solution and the best option we have to advance all these technologies—while gradually reducing consumption and waste—is to obtain a sustainable energy mix to power our world and our manufacturing. AM can play a big part in this scenario, but only if the end reward will justify the necessary investments. 

As a leading and trusted international AM industry media and insights provider, we asked ourselves: how much revenue could be generated by the use of additive manufacturing in tomorrow’s energy production mix? That’s the question we are going to try to answer here.


3D printing power

Additive manufacturing has found applications in different sectors of the power industry, both in building prototypes and in mainstream production, leading to process simplification and operational efficiency. AM can produce components with complex geometries, as well as consume fewer raw materials, produce less waste and have reduced energy consumption and decreased time-to-market.

 With the power industry under pressure, manufacturers are turning towards AM for solutions with reduced costs and shorter time frames. During the initial phase of making inroads in the power industry, 3D printing has achieved a fair level of success with the power industry and technology firms creating a mutually beneficial alliance.

In analyzing the power generation segment and the possible impact that additive manufacturing will have on it, several generalizations can be made about energy equipment. One, perhaps the most apparent in the chart below, is that AM in renewable energy generation is going to surpass all other segments, driven by solar energy. Please note that this projection is highly dependent on the actual use of 3D printing technologies in photovoltaic and solar cell production, a range of applications that are still largely experimental today. 

3D printing clean(er) and more sustainable energy

However, AM is also going to be used in the production of many other pieces of equipment for solar energy generation, including spare parts. Due to a much greater demand for equipment than other energy sources (solar energy requires many, very large power plants to be built in many places around the world and frequently updated), we are now projecting revenues from AM applications in solar energy generation equipment to surpass AM revenues in oil and gas by the end of this decade. This transition will happen even sooner—between 2024 and 2026—if we consider all renewable energy generation equipment combined.

Because the raw energy sources—the sun, the wind, or Earth’s heat—are free, more investments can and will need to be made to produce the infrastructure to harness that energy. On the other hand, oil and gas will likely use AM primarily to reduce costs and streamline investment in the infrastructure, due to generally decreasing demand for fossil fuels. This leads to a more stable growth curve for AM revenues within this segment.

 Nuclear energy generation is also poised to become a large adopter of AM, however nuclear power plants take many years to build. Additionally, not that many new plants are going to be built, as a single plant can produce massive quantities of energy for many years, leading to lower overall parts demand. Still, the impact of AM in nuclear reactor parts is expected to be significant within the total addressable market.

A few words on methodology and TAM

In order to assess the impact that AM is going to have on these different power generation segments, we analyzed the overall forecast for equipment production provided by several specialized sources. We compared this data with the underlying assumption that AM can grow to represent between 1% and 2% of any manufacturing segment by 2030. 

The variation of this percentage was defined by 3dpbm’s understanding of AM adoption in each segment. The derived value was then applied to assess the investments in the three key areas of AM: hardware (intended as the cost of dedicated machines or a revenue equivalent for machine time), materials (intended as the materials used to produce AM parts) and parts and services (intended as all parts produced either internally by power companies or outsourced to 3D printing service providers and tier 1 and 2 suppliers). 

The resulting figures are estimated projections that are meant to provide an order of magnitude for all revenues associated with AM in the power generation industry over the next decade.

Overall, we expect AM to generate $9.99 billion in yearly revenues by 2030, starting from about half a billion in 2019. This represents a 31% CAGR for AM, with the materials subsegment growing at the fastest rate (41%). Of the three subsegments, Parts and Services are going to be generating the largest revenues by the end of the forecast period. In the first part of the forecast, however, hardware is more relevant due to the necessary initial CapEx used to jump-start AM adoption in the energy segment.

The total addressable market (TAM) for energy generation equipment is expected to be worth $671 billion by 2030. This forecast is based on data and projections from a number of different sources for each energy segment. These sources and the TAM for each energy generation segment will be analyzed more in detail in the following sections. Total Additive Manufacturing penetration in the Total Addressable Market (TAM) is expected to be 1.4%.

Fossil fuel lessons

This forecast is based on the analysis of the total addressable market for oil and gas equipment (including downstream, midstream, upstream and power generation components), which we are now projecting to grow to $159 billion in 2030, based on data from Allied Market Research. AM penetration is expected to be in the order of 1.9%.

The World Economic Forum has estimated that AM could eventually save cost and time worth as much as $30 billion of additional value to oil and gas companies. There is significant potential value in the application of AM technologies across the upstream and midstream oil and gas value chain.

 Key benefits of introducing AM hardware include tool-less manufacturing, increased geometric freedom in part design, no or fewer subassemblies, no physical inventory (digital warehousing), fast part availability (including on location in remote areas) and reduced downtimes. 

Along with greater capabilities in terms of size and speed for consolidated AM technologies, significant steps forward have been made in terms of integrating additive manufacturing DED processes (directed energy deposition), which can guarantee fast production speeds through high deposition rates and high automation in integrated hybrid (additive, measurement/inspection, subtractive) systems. The key companies working on introducing AM in the oil and gas segment are Siemens, GE and Baker Hughes, with support from consultancies and standard developers such as DNL GL, Lloyds and Berenschot. 

While applications of AM in oil and gas cover the entire workflow, from exploration to energy generation, this last area has seen some of the most significant developments for AM. In 2018, Siemens produced the first 3D printed metal replacement parts for an industrial steam turbine, reducing the lead time for producing these parts by 40%. 

In 2017, Siemens completed its first full-load engine tests for gas turbine blades, produced entirely using additive manufacturing technology. The company is developing new AM solutions not just for turbine blades, but also for turbine vanes, burner nozzles and radial impellers. GE also considers 3D printing as a disruptor for the energy industry, having shipped 9,000 3D printed gas turbine components as of 2018, including the 3D printed fuel nozzles for the company’s HA-class gas turbines. The nozzles helped the company push the efficiency of the turbines to 64% and are now working towards achieving even higher efficiency of 65%. 

3D printing clean(er) and more sustainable energy

After separating from GE, Baker Hughes announced it would be further escalating the use of AM to make oil and gas energy generation more sustainable as part of a cleaner energy mix. Several solutions with additive manufacturing have been in development for several years at the Baker Hughes Additive Center of Excellence in Florence and the TPS (Turbomachinery & Process Solutions) production facility in Talamona (Northern Italy), as well as drills and downhole tools production facility in Germany and the Baker Hughes headquarters in Houston, TX. 

To date, the company has produced more than 25,000 additive parts and qualified more than 450 individual parts. This is growing at a very fast pace and in 2019, Baker Hughes qualified as many AM parts in a year as they did in all previous years.

Renewing a promise

As Michael Moore’s recent documentary, Planet of the Humans, exposed—though perhaps in a slightly exaggerated way—renewable energy generation is not without flaws. First of all, generating renewable energy requires enormous investments in equipment manufacturing: solar mirrors, cells, batteries, wind turbines and dams. As such, as any manufacturing-intensive segment, it can benefit from additive manufacturing as a more efficient, waste-cutting and sustainable process. 

Total additive manufacturing revenue for all renewable energy generation equipment is projected to grow to $5.72 billion yearly by 2030, once again driven primarily by applications and service revenues. This results in a 1.26% penetration in a TAM which is expected to be worth $452.4 billion yearly by 2030. Solar energy generation is expected to be the primary segment in terms of equipment-related revenues, followed by wind and hydroelectric/geothermal energy (these have been combined in a single segment).

3D printing clean(er) and more sustainable energy_AM

3D printing clean(er) batteries

If renewables are to really provide a viable and widely adopted energy source, batteries need to become even more efficient and—since we are talking about sustainability—rely on cleaner production methods and materials. Most of today’s batteries depend on rare earth metals. Unlike the name seems to imply, rare earth metals are not rare at all. Rather they are very rarefied, which means that large amounts of earth need to be mined and dissolved using highly polluting processes in order to obtain them. Research teams all over the world are exploiting 3D printing technologies to create complex internal structures for batteries with increased capacity and flexibility in shape and size.

A team from Harvard University is developing a miniature version of a Li-ion battery with the use of 3D printing. The micro batteries were fabricated by accurately printing stakes of different compound layers (Li4Ti5O12 or LTO and LiFePO4 or LFP), serving as the anode and the cathode respectively and enabling the development of self-powered miniaturized electronics, robots, medical implants and more. IBM and ETH Zurich researchers created the first liquid battery through 3D printing called the “redox flow” battery. This battery can produce energy and cool at the same time. The team used 3D printing to produce a micro-channel system for supplying the battery with electrolytes. This system minimizes the need for pumping power and eliminates internal high temperatures.

The most relevant development in terms of using 3D printing to improve the sustainability of batteries, which comes out of TU Graz in Austria, could make it easier to manufacture permanent magnets for small electronic components. The super magnets, manufactured using a laser-based 3D printing process, can be used to power electric motors and sensors, wind turbines and magnetic switching systems. Despite their ubiquity, they present certain manufacturing challenges. That is, permanent magnets are typically produced using sintering or injection molding, which limits them in terms of size and geometry. AM can provide a solution.

 In the beginning, the researchers focused their efforts on 3D printing neodymium (NdFeB), a rare earth metal that is used in many strong permanent magnets, such as those used in computers, smartphones and more. Now, team member Arneitz—a Ph.D. student at TU Graz—is exploring the possibility of 3D printing other types of magnets, like iron and cobalt magnets (Fe-Co). Down the line, these magnets could present a more ecological alternative to NdFeB, which, like a rare earth metal, is resource-intensive and challenging to recycle. The researchers also point out that, in terms of performance, rare earth metals tend to lose their magnetic properties at high temperatures, while Fe-Co alloys can maintain their magnetism up to 400° Celsius.

Shining a light on AM

Though the technical feasibility of solar cells was proven some time ago, the capacity factor (CF) is still low with an average of around 17% in best-case scenarios. The low CF of solar panels makes it difficult to attain economies of scale for large solar plants and therefore requires subsidies for continued operation over a period of time. 3D printing can be a game-changer in this respect as it is now being used to create solar panels.

Although the technology is at a nascent stage, MIT researchers claim that applications for additive technology in solar panels could reduce manufacturing costs by 50% with a 20% increase in efficiency compared to traditional solar panels. 3D printed solar panels are light, super-thin solar strips that can be easily transported anywhere with reduced risk of damage.

In Australia, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) used industrial 3D printers to print rolls of solar cells in the form of A3 sheets which can be used on the surfaces of windows and buildings and function as efficient solar panels. The scientists developed a photovoltaic ink to be used on flexible plastic strips. In another instance, The Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative (ASTRI) in partnership with CSIRO developed a Concentrated Solar Plant (CSP) where the entire solar field is 3D printed.

Another project, which began in 2013 but is still in its infancy, combines material science and advanced geometries. The startup T3DP is working on a new generation of 3D printed solar cells that could more than double the conversion efficiency of today’s flat solar panels, thus making 3D printed solar a truly viable and cost-effective solution. From a 3D printing point of view, the solution proposed by T3DP is based on a patented volumetric 3D printing process that leverages a study conducted by Stanford researchers on perovskite materials for solar cells.

 While mass production of solar mirrors, photovoltaic or power cells by 3D printing is still years away, there are several other uses of AM in solar power generation equipment (as in any complex assembly). These include battery production (described more in detail below), turbine parts, heat exchangers and a number of replacement parts, including complex sensors, enclosures, actuators, panel connectors, junctions and positioners.

We are projecting total AM penetration to reach 1.6% of the total addressable market for solar power equipment. The segment is expected to generate $188 billion yearly by 2025, which we are projecting to reach $339 billion by 2030. During the first half of the forecast, growth is associated with greater progressive adoption of traditional polymer and metal AM for replacement and final parts in solar plant equipment. 

This is expected to peak in 2024 and decrease in 2025. The second half of the forecast period is expected to see greater adoption of AM for actual solar power cell production, which will generate much larger revenues. Total additive manufacturing in the total addressable market (TAM) is thus expected to reach $3.4 billion yearly, of which the great majority will be represented by the value and revenues associated with final parts production.

Is the answer blowing in the wind?

Development and innovation through materials and manufacturing technologies are essential for the wind industry to prosper and to continue increasing its annual energy production. AM could in the future enable on-site manufacturing of turbine components that are designed for the unique needs of the resources of a particular location. Also, AM provides a tool to make up for the demand and supply for wind turbine spare parts of the discontinued models, for which the manufacturer will have a limited quantity to meet the repairs. Mold and pattern production is another key and proven area for 3D printing in wind energy generation equipment. Pattern production is one of the most time-consuming and labor-intensive processes in wind blade construction and 3D printing can contribute to saving these critical resources.

3D printing clean(er) and more sustainable energy_AM

In the wind industry, current and R&D-level AM technologies have the potential to impact the prototyping and manufacturing costs of wind energy tooling and components. According to a study published by ORNL application areas for the use of AM for wind components that can be economically feasible, given the ongoing pace of AM technological advancements, include direct-print blade molds that have been studied in greater depth to understand the potential and costs; functionalized nacelle covers; permanent magnets; and lightweight, high-efficiency heat exchangers.

In the future, AM technologies could enable on-site manufacturing of turbine parts as well as the production of site-optimized components that are tailored to the unique wind and grid resources of a given location. With the anticipated maturation of new technologies, such as Large Format Additive Manufacturing (LFAM), high-capacity Wide and High Additive Manufacturing (WHAM) and Large-Scale Metal AM machines, it may someday be possible to affect a paradigm shift to directly print a variety of wind turbine components. 

A key potential benefit is that large wind blades would not have to be carried over long distances—in particular when it is impossible to transport them on highways. Instead, the 3D printer could be operated on-site and “print” the blades, thereby saving transportation costs. This would also cut down the manufacturing time of the mold by 35% and make it possible to combine different materials in different areas of the blade.

This means that not only could large-format polymer and metal additive manufacturing technologies be implemented but cement ones could as well. Purdue University engineers are researching a way to make wind turbine parts out of 3D printed concrete, a less expensive material that would also allow parts to float to a site from an onshore plant.

3D printing clean(er) and more sustainable energy_AM

The researchers are working in collaboration with RCAM Technologies, a startup founded to develop concrete additive manufacturing for onshore and offshore wind energy technology, including wind turbine towers and anchors. By eliminating the need for molds, RCAM’s concrete additive manufacturing process could reduce the capital cost of an offshore substructure and tower compared to conventional methods by up to 80%, using low-cost regionally sourced concrete without expensive formwork, and increase production speed up to 20 times.

Based on data provided by Markets and Markets, we are projecting the total addressable market (TAM) for AM in wind energy equipment production to be worth $44 billion by 2030. Within this segment, based on the potential described above, we are projecting total AM revenues to generate $890 million yearly by 2030, which reflects a 2.02% penetration (higher than for other renewable energy segments but within an overall smaller market). 

It should be noted that this figure, as in all other segments described here, also includes revenues associated with AM hardware, which in wind energy is represented by high-cost systems for the production of very large molds and final parts.

Getting to the bottom of it

Possible uses of 3D printing in both geothermal and hydroelectric energy generation are similar to current uses in the oil and gas industry, as the segments are all connected to generating energy from Earth-bound resources. Geothermal AM applications could be similar to downhole and drilling AM applications for downstream oil procurement. A key benefit of AM is that it can bring part manufacturing even to remote areas where geothermal power is a viable option.

Hydroelectric energy generation devices are in use as turbine elements and heat exchangers in hydroelectric power plants. These elements are similar to those already in production at Siemens and Baker Hughes for gas turbine components. One possible sustainable evolution of hydroelectric power using AM is ultra-micro hydropower generation. Here, additive manufacturing can play a part both in prototyping and in final production. 

 There is a considerable amount of available, though generally unused, energy in rivers, streams and man-made channels, particularly at very low heads of less than 10’. Unfortunately, this resource is disseminated across thousands of locations, each with a different head, flow and site conditions. An affordable technical solution to allow the widespread exploitation of this clean, renewable energy asset is a flexible integrated turbine/generator system based on a 3D printed turbine and a ducted conduit, which is also 3D printed, or with 3D printed inserts mounted on a generic frame. Minneapolis startup Verterra proposed an interesting concept for this back in 2016: its water turbine system, called Volturnus, operates based on a horizontal design that generates energy while also deflecting river debris such as rocks, plants and logs. The turbines, deployed in sets of five called V-Pods, sit below the water’s surface in flowing bodies of water, subtlety and silently capturing enough energy from the water to generate as many as 40 households. The process of designing the now-patented turbine design relied heavily on 3D printing technologies. Future production models may also integrate parts 3D printed on location.

3D printing clean(er) and more sustainable energy

Considering the current adoption rate and future potential, AM in the geothermal and hydroelectric segments could grow to reach yearly revenues of $1.44 billion by 2030, representing roughly 1.6% of the total addressable market, which we are projecting to reach $68 billion (based on data provided by Transparency Market Research).

Nu-clear energy

Possibly (and literally) the hottest segment for AM adoption is the civil nuclear industry. Ever since Siemens successfully installed a 3D printed part—a metallic 108 millimeter (mm) diameter impeller for a fire protection pump—in the Krško nuclear power plant in Slovenia, new AM applications for nuclear power plants have been in development. With the proper materials, including ceramics and refractory metals, AM can be used for obsolete parts which are no longer available, allowing old power plants to continue their operations. Recently, radiation shielding materials such as boron carbide have become available as powders for binder jetting on ExOne systems. And earlier this year, Swedish 3D printing companies Additive Composite and Add North 3D released a new boron carbide composite filament suitable for radiation shielding applications in the nuclear industry.

Advanced research on the use of 3D printed replacements and spare parts for nuclear reactors began officially in 2016 when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) had been selected to lead a $2 million additive manufacturing research project. The project is part of a more than $80 million investment in advanced nuclear technology.

 GEH led the project by producing sample replacement parts for nuclear power plants. The samples were 3D printed in metal at the GE Power Advanced Manufacturing Works facility in Greenville, SC and then shipped to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Once irradiated in INL’s Advanced Test Reactor, the samples were tested and compared to an analysis of unirradiated material conducted by GEH. The results are now being used by GEH to support the deployment of 3D printed parts for fuels, services and new plant applications.

In February 2018, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power utility, Rosatom, established a company for the development of additive manufacturing technologies. It has already developed a pre-production prototype of a Gen II 3D printer to be used for both metal and composite AM parts in nuclear energy generation activities.

More recently, Westinghouse Electric Company installed a 3D printed component into a commercial nuclear reactor at Exelon’s Byron Unit 1 nuclear plant during its spring refueling outage. Westinghouse operates powder bed fusion metal AM, as well as Hot wire laser welding (HWLW), as part of its advanced manufacturing offering. R&D is also ongoing to identify more applications of 3D printing in the nuclear industry.

One of these, supported by DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, is the Transformational Challenge Reactor (TCR) Demonstration Program, an unprecedented approach to develop a 3D printed reactor core by 2023. As part of deploying a 3D printed nuclear reactor, the program will create a digital platform that will help in handing off the technology to the industry for the rapid adoption of additively manufactured nuclear energy technology.  Through the TCR program, ORNL is seeking a solution to a troubling trend: although nuclear power plants provide nearly 20% of U.S. electricity, more than half of U.S. reactors will be retired within 20 years, based on current license expiration dates. 

Things are now moving really fast in the nuclear industry—a big change from the past—especially on the front of SMR (small modular reactors) which are scaled down versions of nuclear reactors including both current and IV generation (fast neutron) technology. As recently as May 15th, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded grants to GE Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for research projects to develop digital twin technology for advanced nuclear reactors using artificial intelligence and advanced modeling controls. The research projects will use a digital twin of the company’s BWRX-300 small modular reactor as a reference design. 


Digital twin technology, which perfectly recreates virtual simulations of complex engineering structures, is a key element in a digitalization strategy for manufacturing that includes 3D printing for digital warehousing and spare parts on demand. The market for 3D printed parts in nuclear energy equipment could grow to represent as much as $1.23 billion out of a total addressable market for nuclear energy generation equipment (including power plants and ongoing research projects) that we are projecting to reach $59 billion by 2030, based on data supplied by Allied Market Research. This means that TAM would be in the order of 2.08%. CAGR growth for additive manufacturing in nuclear energy equipment applications is expected to be 27%. Other segments are expected to grow faster but nuclear energy will of course require additional safety guidelines.

This article first appeared on 3dpbm’s AM Focus 2020 Sustainability eBook

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