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Tina Casey headshot

3D Printed Water Could Be The Next Big Thing


The roots of 3D printing have been traced back to 1980, but only within the last couple of years has the technolgy flowered in a thousand different directions. In the latest development, engineers at GE Global Research are exploring a low cost way to desalinate water with a miniature 3D-printed turbine, similar to the giant steam turbines used to generate electricity at power plants.

For an assist with the new 3D printed desalination concept GE turned to the U.S. Department of Energy, so before we go any farther let's answer this question: why is the Energy Department interested in 3D printing?

Group Hug For 3D Printing

Regular readers of Triple Pundit are familiar with the role that millions of ordinary U.S. taxpayers have played in the clean energy revolution through the Energy Department's support for wind and solar development, as well as the agency's work with electric vehicle manufacturers and biofuel producers.

As part of its long term planning and innovation mission, the agency also runs some highly critical programs in energy-related areas that don't usually get that much of a spotlight. One is manufacturing, and another is materials, including the sometimes-rare materials needed to manufacture solar panels, electric vehicle batteries and other clean technologies.

Now you can see where this is going. As an additive process, 3D printing is a highly energy efficient, adaptive manufacturing method that can be applied across a wide variety of materials, including biobased materials.

To give you an idea how critical 3D printing is to the national interest, consider that the U.S. Department of Defense is the lead agency behind the public-private National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, launched in 2012. The consortium includes the Energy Department as well as GE and three dozen other major U.S. defense suppliers.

Now that the price of small scale 3D printers has plummeted, 3D printing also provides students, artisans and other small scale innovators with a seamless, low cost route from concept to prototype. If you're familiar with the 3D printing aspect of the Maker movement, you can see why the Energy Department is eager to tap into the next generation of cutting edge innovation in manufacturing and materials through 3D printing initiatives that embrace the general public, including the donation of hundreds of desktop 3D printers to schools.

As for how fast the 3D printing world is developing, in June 2014 the Energy Department summarized the state of 3D printing with this comment:

Though the possibilities for additive manufacturing are endless, today 3D printing is mostly used to build small, relatively costly components using plastics and metal powders.

Well, that was then. Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, an Energy Department 3D printing innovation hub, unveiled an entire 3D printed building just last month. Among other projects the lab has also partnered with the automotive startup Local Motors to introduce 3D printed cars to the road.

Group Hug For 3D Printed Water

That brings us back around to GE's 3D printed turbine for water desalination. At about the size of a handheld kitchen appliance the new turbine is not a "small component" in a general sense, but with the aid of 3D printing it is an astonishingly precise miniaturization of a conventional steam turbine, which is typically the size of a school gymnasium.

GE credits the idea for the new turbine to its collaborative "GE Store" approach, which fosters good old fashioned brainstorming to solve the various challenges posed by different branches of the company's industrial customers.

A GE engineer was already working with miniature 3D printed turbine-related equipment to enhance small scale liquid natural gas production, and that gave the team a head start on developing a 3D printed desalinater. The result would be an energy efficient process that freezes brine instead of condensing steam, thus separating the inflow into solid water (aka ice) and salt crystals:

Cooling the salty water, or brine droplets, by expanding cold gas in the turbine would greatly reduce the energy required for desalination. The heat transfer between the cooling gas and brine would be much more efficient compared to conventional thermal desalination systems.

The GE team is happy to credit the company's partnership with the Energy Department for development of the new technology, and anticipates a 20 percent drop in cost compared to conventional systems.

With the assist from 3D printing, the cost of development will also drop as described by GE:

For the water desalination concept, using a full size steam turbine would not make sense. They are typically the size of several rail cars and take months to manufacture.  What researchers have done is essentially shrink the components into a usable size for their experiments.  To speed the development process, the miniaturized parts were 3D printed using technologies developed in GE Global Research’s Additive Manufacturing Lab and GE Aviation’s additive manufacturing facility in Cincinnati, Ohio.  To perform the actual water treatment processes, GE researchers have drawn from our technical expertise at the lab and in the water business.

So far the project is in the proof of concept stage, and GE expects to have more news out of its Energy Department partnership by next summer.

Photo credit: via GE Reports.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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