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3D Metal Printing Produces Turbomachinery

EP Editorial Staff | November 20, 2020

A VELO3D system printed a metal impeller for Hanwha Power Systems.

SupportFree capabilities allow an 80% reduction in build time.

While it may take hundreds of parts to construct power-generation equipment, there are mission-critical components that can determine the performance of an entire system. Many of these highly optimized parts can be difficult to manufacture and present some of the greatest engineering challenges that high-tech companies face. Tradeoffs often must be made between performance, availability, volume, quality, and cost.

Chad Robertson, senior engineer at Hanwha Power Systems, Houston, (hanwhapowersystems.com), part of Hanwha Group, South Korea, and his team are developing turbomachinery for a high-efficiency power-generation system using Supercritical CO2 (s-CO2) as the working fluid in a recompression Brayton cycle (RCBC). Heat input to the cycle will be delivered from a concentrated solar-power array. The solar-power project, in part supported by the Department of Energy’s office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Washington (energy.gov), has an end goal of using this equipment for a concentrating-solar-power plant.

The S-CO2 used for the solar-power project is a fluid state of carbon dioxide that is held above its critical pressure and temperature. At these conditions, the fluid is very dense, resulting in compact machinery and optimal thermodynamic cycle conditions that allow increased thermal-to-electric energy-conversion efficiency when compared to steam Rankine cycles. The overall system works by transferring heat from a large solar array into a working fluid (CO2) that is channeled through a series of radial expanders to extract power. The final expander is connected to a gearbox that drives a generator and various additional compressors needed to complete the power cycle and deliver electricity to the grid.

“The temperatures and pressures in such a system need to be very high,” said Robertson. “Our goal of optimum efficiency drove us to design a shrouded turbine wheel, or impeller, where the flow path of the working fluid is covered on top and bottom. This eliminates any gap between the impeller and the housing that would reduce wheel efficiency.”

The Hanwha team evaluated several potential manufacturing techniques for making the new component. “These shrouded impellers are a significant manufacturing challenge, even conventionally,” said Robertson. “The geometry is quite complex, as the enclosed, sweeping blades are a three-dimensional shape that is not easy to define, and the high-temperature nickel alloy that we use is difficult to machine.”

With these constraints in mind, the team reviewed and rejected conventional techniques such as five-axis milling or precision investment casting, identifying roadblocks in cost and accuracy. For example, with traditional manufacturing, the shrouded wheel would have taken multiple steps to manufacture; an open impeller and a shroud would have had to be produced separately and then brazed, with the bonding presenting potential for weakness or distortion in the finished piece.

Additive Manufacturing

It was decided to explore additive manufacturing (AM, aka 3D printing) as a more direct route to simplifying the entire process. This technology offered an opportunity to iterate more quickly, refine the design, increase performance, and optimize function.

Hanwha had previously worked with Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, Valencia, CA, (stratasysdirect.com), an additive-manufacturing service bureau/contract manufacturer, on prototype test builds for shrouded impellers. “We were looking for an additive vendor that could provide us with a turnkey part,” explained Robertson. “We wanted to supply design specification, materials requirement—and then get back a finished part we could basically put right on our machine.”

Stratasys Direct met the challenge. “What enabled us to take on this shrouded-turbine-wheel project was what we’re calling a next-generation additive-manufacturing system,” said Andrew Carter, senior process and manufacturing engineer for Stratasys Direct. “We’ve found that the new VELO3D Sapphire system dramatically improves the process and stands alone in this next-gen category.”

Prior to owning the VELO3D Sapphire, Stratasys Direct wouldn’t have bid on the Hanwha part, Carter said. “Previous projects with other AM-equipment vendors had shown us that removal and cleanup of all the necessary support structures required for successful prints on their machines was labor-intensive, costly and, in some sections, basically impossible.”

With the Sapphire metal AM system, however, the need for supports is greatly reduced—if not entirely eliminated—due to the printer’s ability to overcome the “45-degree rule,” which dictates that angles less than that require additional vertical supports to hold up portions of a part during printing. By using the VELO3D system to additively manufacture the shrouded impeller, Stratasys Direct was able to greatly reduce the total volume of material used and the surface area for which the system needed to print supports.

The engineers compared a Hanwha component design created with conventional AM support requirements to what would be required by the Sapphire. For the conventional AM printer, they modeled supports for all surfaces less than 45 deg. from horizontal. On the VELO3D printer, they only needed to add supports on surfaces at less than 10 deg. from horizontal. (Stratasys Direct has since improved their process with the Sapphire and can now print all the way down to zero degrees in certain applications without supports.) After further refinement, the difference in design for Hanwha was drastic—a 100% reduction in support material.

Using less material provides significant savings in a number of ways, noted Carter. “In addition to lower material costs to our customers overall, requiring far fewer supports has eliminated a lot of post-processing work,” he said. “This, in the long run, will contribute to reduced labor time and expense on the shop floor.”

Most current 3D printers need a large number of support structures (in red) to produce the Hanwha impeller design. The VELO3D Sapphire printer manufactures the same design support free (shown below).

Fine Tuning

The Sapphire also allowed Stratasys Direct to print a high-temperature nickel alloy (718) for this impeller with extreme accuracy. “Due to the consistency we get from the VELO3D system, we ended up with a near-net shape part on the build plate that required correspondingly less in the way of post processing,” reported Carter.

Build-time reduction was another benefit of using the next-gen AM system. The printer has two 1-kW lasers with full build-plate coverage aligned to less than a 50-µm overlay tolerance. This means that each laser has the capability to reach anywhere on the build plate and deliver a full kilowatt of power (for bulk-metal processing). The lasers also create a virtually invisible overlap on larger parts such as the Hanwha impeller. Combined with the time savings from having much less support material to produce, the high-power lasers enable an 80% reduction in overall print time.

Part Quality

Ensuring sound mechanical properties of the Hanwha turbine wheel is extremely important for the test program as it moves forward. The wheel will rotate at greater than 14,000 rpm during testing and in a high-temperature environment, so it’s critical that the material properties of the turbine are well understood. As part of the project, Stratasys Direct printed test samples and heat treated them alongside the turbine to measure tensile and stress rupture properties.

ASTM F3055-14 provided a general specification for the additive manufacturing of nickel alloy 718. The measured tensile results all exceeded ASTM F3055 minimum requirements. The chemical composition of the test samples was also reviewed and met ASTM requirements.

“The success of the centrifugal impeller-wheel prototypes Stratasys Direct made for us with the Sapphire machine from VELO3D has definitely increased our interest in additive manufacturing,” concluded Robertson. “It has opened up design freedoms for our team and sparked a renewed effort to better quantify the material properties and capabilities of additively manufacturing parts. The combination of the state-of-the-art 3D printing and expert project management truly did make the impossible possible.” EP

Find more information at stratasysdirect.com and velo3d.com.

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