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Engineers use 3D printing to strengthen key material used in aerospace and energy generation applications

The approach, led by MIT, involves the 3D printing of a metallic powder strengthened with ceramic nanowire

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A team of MIT-led engineers has reported a simple, inexpensive way to strengthen one of the key materials used in aerospace and energy generation applications – increasing the ability of these materials to withstand extreme conditions such as high temperatures and tensile stresses. The team reportedly believes that their general approach, which involves the 3D printing of a metallic powder strengthened with ceramic nanowires, could be used to improve many other materials.

“There is always a significant need for the development of more capable materials for extreme environments. We believe that this method has great potential for other materials in the future,” said corresponding author, Ju Li, the Battelle Energy Alliance Professor in Nuclear Engineering, and a professor in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE).

Enhanced performance

The team’s approach begins with Inconel 718, or alternative metal capable of withstanding extreme conditions such as temperatures of 700 degrees Celsius (approximately 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit). They then mill commercial Inconel 718 powders with a small number of ceramic nanowires, resulting in “the homogeneous decoration of nano-ceramics on the surfaces of Inconel particles,” according to the team. The resulting powder is used to create parts via laser powder bed fusion (LPBF).

MIT-led engineers use ceramic nanowires and 3D printing to strengthen key material used in aerospace and energy generation applications.
Photo credit: Alexander O’Brien.

The researchers found that parts made with their new powder have significantly less porosity and fewer cracks than parts made of Inconel 718 alone – leading to significantly stronger parts that also have several other advantages. For example, the parts are more ductile – or stretchable – and have much better resistance to radiation and high-temperature loading.

According to Li, the process itself is not expensive because “it works with existing 3D printing machines. Just use our powder and you get much better performance.”

“In this paper, the authors propose a new method for printing metal matrix composites of Inconel 718 reinforced by [ceramic] nanowires. The in-situ dissolution of the ceramic that is induced by the laser melting process has enhanced the thermal resistance and strength of Inconel 718. Moreover, the in-situ reinforcements reduced the grain size and got rid of flaws. Future 3D printing of metal alloys, including modification for high-reflectivity copper and fracture suppression for superalloys, can clearly benefit from this technique,” commented Xu Song, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who was not involved in the work.

New possibilities

Li says that the work “could open a huge new space for alloy design” because the cooling rate of ultrathin 3D printed layers of metal alloys is much faster than the rate for bulk parts created using conventional melt-solidification processes. As a result, “many of the rules on chemical composition that apply to bulk casting don’t seem to apply to this kind of 3D printing. So we have a much bigger composition space to explore for the base metal with ceramic additions.”

“This composition was one of the first ones we decided on, so it was very exciting to get these results in real life. There is still a vast exploration space. We will keep exploring new Inconel composite formulations to end up with materials that could withstand more extreme environments,” said Emre Tekoğlu, one of the lead authors of the paper.

“The precision and scalability that comes with 3D printing has opened up a world of new possibilities for materials design. Our results here are an exciting early step in a process that will surely have a major impact on design for nuclear, aerospace, and all energy generation in the future,” said Alexander O’Brien, another lead author.

This work was supported by Eni S.p.A. through the MIT Energy Initiative, the National Science Foundation, and ARPA-E.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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