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GE, ORNL and partners turn to 3D printing for high-temperature heat exchanger

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GE Research is developing a high temperature, high pressure and super-compact heat exchanger with the help of 3D printing technologies. The project, which is supported by $2.5 million and will go on for 2.5 years, is part of the the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (ARPA-E) High Intensity Thermal Exchange through Materials and Manufacturing Processes program (HITEMMP). The 3D printed heat exchanger can enable cleaner, more efficient power generation for existing and next-gen power plant platforms.

The project is being led by GE Research and brings on an interdisciplinary team of experts in high-temperature metal alloys, thermal management and additive manufacturing as well as the University of Maryland and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Together, the parties will work to develop an advanced 900°C and 250 bar (3626 psi) capable heat exchanger.

“We’re taking our deep knowledge in metals and thermal management and applying it in ways we couldn’t have before through the power of 3D printing,” said Peter deBock, Principal Thermal Engineer for GE Research and project leader of the ARPA-E award. “With 3D printing, we can now achieve new design architectures previously not possible. And this will allow us to create an ‘UPHEAT’ device that can operate cost effectively at temperatures 250°C (450°F) degrees higher than today’s heat exchangers.”

GE Research high-temperature heat exchanger
Laura Dial and Peter DeBock with the heat exchanger prototype

Interestingly, the team is drawing inspiration from something close to the heart for the new heat exchanger. Literally. According to deBock, the 3D printed design will function similarly to the lungs in the human body, which circulate the air we breathe while simultaneously regulating our body temperature.

“Lungs are the ultimate heat exchanger, circulating the air you breathe to keep the body functioning at peak performance while also regulating your body’s temperature,” he explained. “Heat exchangers in power generation equipment like a gas turbine essentially perform the same function, but at much higher temperatures and pressures. With additive manufacturing, GE and University of Maryland will now explore more intricate biological shapes and designs to enable a step change in heat exchanger performance that delivers higher efficiency and lower emissions.”

The bio-inspired 3D printed heat exchanger will be produced from a unique, high-temperature capable, crack-resistant nickel superalloy developed by GE Research specifically for AM. ORNL will provide its expertise in corrosion science to evaluate and validate the material’s long term performance. 

When the part’s development is complete, the heat exchanger is expected to increase the thermal efficiency of indirect power cycles such as supercritical carbon dioxide (sCO2) Brayton power generation, reducing energy consumption and emissions. The heat exchanger could also open up new opportunities in the aerospace industry.

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