ORNL’s Electron-Beam 3D Printer Opens Tungsten Possibilities

By on May 31st, 2024 in news, research

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3D printed tungsten part [Source: ORNL]

Oak Ridge National Laboratory just did something amazing: 3D printed a complex object in tungsten.

Tungsten is an extremely interesting metal, most notably because it has extraordinarily high thermal resistance. How high is it? Try 3422C (6192F). For perspective, aluminum’s melting point is “only” 660C (1220F).

This makes tungsten very appropriate for use in very high temperature applications. ORNL suggests that future fusion reactors could make use of tungsten components due to the star-like temperatures produced in those devices.

Because of the ridiculously high melting point, it is extremely difficult to 3D print tungsten. In fact, I am not sure that any of the current crop of commercial metal 3D printers can do so.

ORNL has overcome this limitation by developing a new 3D printer that can print tungsten. ORNL explains:

“In its pure form, tungsten is brittle at room temperature and easily shatters. To counter this, ORNL researchers developed an electron-beam 3D printer to deposit tungsten, layer by layer, into precise three-dimensional shapes. This technology uses a magnetically directed stream of particles in a high-vacuum enclosure to melt and bind metal powder into a solid-metal object. The vacuum environment reduces foreign material contamination and residual stress formation.”

That sounds expensive, from the brief description, and likely the parts made using the printer will be correspondingly pricey. Nevertheless, it’s very likely small numbers of this machine would be able to service the niche applications that require ultra-high temperature parts made from tungsten.

What are those applications? It may be the case that this is another one of those “we don’t know the applications because we could never do this before” scenarios. In that case it may take some time for innovators to identify ways to leverage this technology.

Who knows, perhaps this development will become a key infrastructure piece in a future world where we rely on clean fusion reactors to generate our power.


By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!