Market Insights

3DP Superalloy to Boost Power Plant Efficiency, Cut Emissions

March 03, 2023 by Claire Turvill

Researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a new superalloy that could lead to more efficient power plants, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Sandia National Laboratories has made a breakthrough discovery that could broadly impact the energy, aerospace, and automotive industries, among others. The lab has developed a new 3D-printed superalloy that surpasses the strength and lightness of current state-of-the-art materials used in gas turbine machinery.


Power plant emissions. Image used courtesy of Pixabay

Power plant emissions. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


The research has been carried out in collaboration with Ames National Laboratory, Iowa State University, and Bruker Corp.


Power Plant Efficiency

Fossil fuels and nuclear power plants generate about 80% of the electricity in the United States. To generate electricity, both types of facilities utilize heat to turn turbines. In power plants, turbine generators are limited in efficiency by how hot the metal turbine parts can get. The energy-to-electricity conversion will be significantly more efficient if the turbines can withstand higher temperatures. 

Increasing efficiency will impact the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere. When efficiency is low, power plants must burn more fuel to achieve their energy output goal. Finding a way for turbines to operate at higher temperatures with greater efficiency will reduce the additional burning of fuels.


New 3D-printed Superalloy

Researchers at Sandia have developed a new high-performance metal alloy (superalloy) that’s unique composition‒42% aluminum, 25% titanium, 13% niobium, 8% zirconium, 8% molybdenum, and 4% tantalum‒makes it stronger, lighter, and more resilient than current gas turbine materials. 

When tested against other high-performance alloys, the 3D-printed superalloy was superior at 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit) and when cooled down to room temperature.

These findings offer a promising solution to improve power plant efficiency by generating more electricity while producing fewer carbon emissions.


Greenhouse gas emissions. Image used courtesy of Pixabay

Greenhouse gas emissions. Image used courtesy of Pixabay


The research also has implications beyond the energy sector. The aerospace and automotive industries use lightweight materials that endure high temperatures. The Ames Lab uses electronic structure theory to further understand the atomic properties of this new class of alloys to better assist manufacturing and growth challenges.


Additive Manufacturing

Using 3D printers to manufacture the superalloy is a subset of additive manufacturing. The benefit of additive manufacturing in production is that it allows a developer to minimize the material used because it deposits material precisely within a design.

The Sandia research team used a 3D-printing technique using a high-power laser to flash-melt powdered metals and immediately print a sample of the new mixture. This demonstrates a fast and efficient way to develop new materials.

The superalloy represents a fundamental shift in alloy development because it comprises multiple metals, each comprising less than half of the material. This differs from traditional alloys like steel, primarily composed of iron and a small percentage of carbon. 

Combining multiple elements to create new alloys opens a new frontier in materials science and metallurgy. Combining two or three elements has already led to the development of useful engineering alloys, going beyond four or five within a single material presents interesting and challenging opportunities for researchers. 

These new materials could offer improved strength, durability, and resistance to wear and tear, leading to more efficient and cost-effective products. 


Energy Industry Game Changer

The development of a new 3D-printed superalloy that can boost power plant efficiency and cut carbon emissions has wide-reaching implications for the energy, aerospace, and automotive industries. If the technology can be scaled up, it could transform these industries' operations and reduce their environmental impact. 


Environmental impacts of pollution. Image used courtesy of Pixabay

Environmental impacts of pollution. Image used courtesy of Pixabay

The research team is interested in exploring advanced computer modeling techniques to discover more members of a potential new class of high-performance superalloys that could be produced using additive manufacturing techniques. 

Unfortunately, there are a few challenges in this new development. Using additive manufacturing to produce the new superalloy in large volumes can occasionally suffer from microscopic cracks. Additionally, the materials used to create the alloy are expensive, making it potentially unsuitable for consumer goods where cost is a primary concern. 

However, the research team believes that if the alloy is scalable and can be produced in bulk, it has the potential to be a game changer in materials science. There is the possibility for significant impact, innovation, and technological advancement.