New 3D-printed metals offer incredible strength and ductility for Industry 4.0

11 Dec 2017

A 3D-printed part for a nuclear fusion test reactor. Image: Dr Leifeng Liu/University of Birmingham

New 3D-printing methods with metal parts could usher in the age of nuclear fusion energy, thanks to incredible strength and ductility.

3D printing has evolved far beyond the creation of small, plastic trinkets, and into large-scale manufacturing of steel and components, which would be substantially cheaper than parts produced by traditional methods.

Now, researchers from the UK, Sweden and China have teamed up to create a new method that can print stainless steel parts that are exceptionally strong but ductile, and could be used in future nuclear fusion reactors.

In a paper published to the journal Materials Today, the joint team from the University of Birmingham, Stockholm University and Zhejiang University revealed that it achieved this feat by optimising the process parameters during 3D printing.

In essence, the team said, it gives researchers a new tool to design alloy systems with ultra-mechanical properties. It should also help metal 3D printing gain access to a field where high mechanical properties are required, such as structural parts in aerospace and the automotive industry.

Natural enemies unite

This should help dispel the notion that 3D printing cannot create metals that are both very strong and ductile, with the ultra-fast cooling rate of 3D-printed steel reaching up to 100m degrees Celsius per second, compared to 1,000 degrees Celsius per second with traditionally made steel.

This ultra-fast cooling will be crucial to projects dealing with intense energy levels such as nuclear fusion, aiming to create a scaled-down version of our sun in a reactor to create near-limitless, clean electricity.

“Strength and ductility are natural enemies of one another – most methods developed to strengthen metals consequently reduce ductility,” said Dr Leifeng Liu, who led the project.

“The 3D-printing technique is known to produce objects with previously inaccessible shapes, and our work shows that it also provides the possibility to produce the next generation of structural alloys with significant improvements in both strength and ductility.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic