A new metal superalloy could reduce carbon emissions from power plants with 3D printing technology

As the world looks for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have developed a new 3D-printable metal superalloy that could help power plants generate more electricity with less carbon emissions. The high-performance metal alloy was developed in collaboration between scientists at Sandia and Ames National Laboratory, Iowa State University and Bruker Corp. The project uses a 3D printer, which is able to create stronger and at the same time lighter elements used in gas turbines. The discovery could have a broad impact on the energy sector as well as the aerospace and automotive industries.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, approximately 80% of the electricity in the US comes from fossil fuels or nuclear power plants. Both types of facilities use heat to spin turbines to produce electricity. The efficiency of the power plant is limited by the degree of heating of the metal parts of the turbine. If the turbines can run at higher temperatures, more energy can be converted into electricity while reducing the amount of waste heat released into the environment.

Sandia’s experiments showed that a new superalloy of 42% aluminum, 25% titanium, 13% niobium, 8% zirconium, 8% molybdenum and 4% tantalum was stronger at 800°C than many other high-performance alloys, including those used in turbine parts today. The alloy was even stronger when it was brought back to room temperature.

Sandia team members used a metal 3D printer to quickly melt the powdered metals, then immediately printed a sample of it. Sandia’s achievement also represents a fundamental change in the development of alloys, as no single metal makes up more than half of the material. For comparison, steel is about 98% iron combined with carbon, among others. Going forward, the team is interested in exploring whether advanced computer modeling techniques can help scientists discover a new class of high-performance superalloys that are the future of additive manufacturing.

“These are extremely complex mixtures,” said Sandia scientist Michael Chandross, an expert in atomic-scale computer modeling who was not directly involved in the study. “All of these metals interact at the microscopic level – even at the atomic level – and it is these interactions that really determine how strong a metal is, how malleable it is, what its melting point will be, and so on. Our model takes a lot of the guesswork out of metallurgy because it can calculate it all and allows us to predict the performance of a new material before we produce it.”


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