3D printing, a cutting-edge technology, is steadily opening up opportunities for the power industry. It has applications in numerous facets of the power domain. These include renewable energy, conventional power and battery energy storage. Be it rapid prototyping and producing components or parts with complex geometries, additive manufacturing (AM) results in shorter lead time, reduced costs, faster upgrade of existing assets and optimized efficiency. This is expected to advance further with the invention of larger printers, says GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

The company’s latest theme report, ‘Thematic Research: 3D Printing in Power’, reveals that with the power industry under pressure, manufacturers are focusing on 3D printing for solutions with decreased costs and shorter timeframes. Power companies Siemens, GE, Rosatom and Westinghouse have been early adopters in the industrialization of 3D printing.

Figure 1: The 3D printing industry value chain

Source: GlobalData Power Intelligence Center

Power utilities and equipment manufacturers are witnessing a huge opportunity to make their operations more efficient. Vestas sees 3D printing as its key enabling technology for wind turbines and replacement parts in the future.

The 3D metal milestone

In April 2018, Siemens achieved a milestone by producing the first 3D printed metal replacement parts for an industrial steam turbine. According to the company, this is a game-changer, as it can reduce 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 (AM) technology. The company is in the process of developing additive manufacturing solutions not just for turbine blades, but also turbine vanes, burner nozzles, and radial impellers. The company acquired Materials Solutions, a company specializing in 3D printing, in 2016, as part of its strategic plan to set up a global AM service business. Siemens is investing €30m in a 3D printing facility in the UK for Materials Solutions.

Siemens will also utilize AM technology for its HL-class gas turbines (SGT5-9000HL) and has collaborated with SSE plc for deploying the 50Hz Siemens HL-class gas turbine at its Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) Keadby 2 power station in the UK. In addition, Siemens and E.ON also attained a major 3D printing milestone through its 3D printed burner for an SGT-700 industrial gas turbine operating at E.ON’s combined cycle power plant (CCPT) located in Philippsthal, Germany.

3D printing promises to be a disruptor for the power industry

GE also believes that 3D printing is a disruptor for the industry. The company has already shipped 9,000 3D printed gas turbine components. The company believes that 3D printing will enable it to enhance the efficiency of turbines in much less time than previously because it is now possible to quickly manufacture prototypes and test them.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has been supporting the development of 3D printing for applications in energy. Recently, in July 2018, the DOE selected 15 projects to receive $8.8m of federal funding. These projects are for R&D to develop innovative technologies for fossil fuel power systems. The DOE’s Wind Program and Advanced Manufacturing Office has also partnered with public and private organizations to apply AM to the production of wind turbine blade moulds and foster innovation in wind technologies.

Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) attained the Federal Laboratory Consortium (FLC) for Technology Transfer’s national 2018 Technology Focus Award for its 3D printing application in the production of a mould for a wind turbine blade measuring 13 meters (42.6 ft) in length. While Sandia was involved in the design phase of this project, Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) carried out the AM phase of the project. With the help of 3D printed moulds, designers can dramatically cut down the time and cost of developing new wind power technology.

Higher efficiency solar cells

Another area where 3D printing is being used in the power industry is in solar panels. Although this is still at a nascent stage, experts say that it could enable the production of higher efficiency solar cells than is presently possible through traditional screen-printing techniques. The Team – 3DPCoin (T3DP), refers to a 3D printing research project which was initiated in 2013 by Daniel Clark, the inventor of T3DP’s 3D printed solar power technique. This project employs a patented volumetric 3D printing method to construct perovskite-based solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, that can almost double the conversion efficiency of the present solar PV panels.

Nuclear power may be the next market for 3D printing

Finally, R&D is also ongoing to identify the applications of 3D printing in the nuclear power industry. Advances in 3D printing technology are also all set to revolutionize the nuclear power industry as scientists take advantage of developing flexible materials, 3D printed parts and nuclear sensors layer by layer. Recently, in October 2019, Argonne scientists at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), were involved in printing 3D parts, aiding in recycling up to 97% of the nuclear waste produced by nuclear power reactors.

Research teams all over the world are exploiting the 3D printing technologies to create complex internal structures of batteries with increased capacity and flexibility in shape and size. In recent years increased numbers of electronic components have become 3D-printable and in near future, we can expect prototyping of smart functional hi-tech devices developed for home.