NORTH HUNTINGDON, Pa.—The ExOne Company recently reached a commercial license agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to 3D print parts in aluminum-infiltrated boron carbide (B4C), the company said in a release. ExOne is a developer of industrial sand and metal 3D printers that use binder jetting technology.

Researchers at ORNL developed the patent-pending method of 3D printing aluminum-infiltrated B4C on an ExOne M-Flex, a 3D printer that uses binder jetting technology to 3D print objects in metals, ceramics, and other powder materials. In 2019, ExOne executed an R&D license for the manufacturing process. Now, that license has been expanded to commercial use so that ExOne can begin printing aluminum-infiltrated B4C collimators, shielding equipment, and other components used in neutron scattering research, the company said in the release.

Binder jetting is a groundbreaking 3D printing process that uses a digital file to quickly inkjet a binder into a bed of powder particles — metal, sand, or ceramic — to create a solid part one layer at a time. When metals are printed, the final part may be fabricated into a solid object. Other materials can also be infiltrated into the part during the process.

In this instance, a team at ORNL led by David C. Anderson, manager of instrument systems engineering for the Second Target Station Project, developed a process to 3D print objects in B4C, a neutron-absorbing material, and then infiltrate the objects with aluminum. Infiltration occurs when a material is wetted or absorbed into another material, such as when water is absorbed into a sponge. The final aluminum-infiltrated B4C material is known as a metal-matrix composite, a type of cermet.

ORNL’s Amy Elliott is a co-inventor of this process. Additional co-inventors of these technologies include Corson Cramer and Bianca Haberl, both of ORNL.

The development is significant because aluminum-infused B4C has strong but lightweight properties, as well as neutron-absorbing characteristics that are particularly useful in neutron scattering instruments, which enable researchers to capture data down to the atomic level, ExOne said in the release.

Using traditional methods, manufacturers face limitations in the shapes of collimators they can produce, which also limits the type of research and other work that could be done with them. The new method of creating B4C objects opens the door to new types of objects useful in deflecting or absorbing energy, which can protect people and the environment from radiation.

The intellectual property covered in the license agreement includes pending U.S. patent application no. 16/155,134, entitled “Collimators and Other Components from Neutron Absorbing Materials Using Additive Manufacturing,” as well as two additional provisional filings. Under the agreement, ExOne will also engage in ongoing 3D printing production of a variety of B4C matrix components used in neutron scattering experiments at ORNL.

The new B4C material also means that ExOne can offer its customers a method of 3D printing a metal material that is lighter than bronze, the company said.

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