Researchers at IFP Energies nouvelles (IFPEN) have developed an innovative methodology based on CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) and 3D printing techniques for the design and manufacture of a metal chemical reactor for the production of clean fuels. While metal 3D printing is already widely used by the aviation and automobile sectors, this is a unique technical feat for a chemical reactor operating under high pressure and temperature conditions, bringing into play reactions between gases, liquids and solids.
In order to develop and test processes for the production of fuels and intermediates for the chemicals sector, IFPEN researchers design reactors for their pilot units. For example, they have developed a stirred-tank chemical reactor that can be used to obtain reactions between a liquid and a gas, in the presence of a solid catalyst under high temperature and pressure conditions.
For this type of complex and miniature reactor, traditional manufacturing methods are unsuitable for obtaining appropriate geometries. A chemical engineering research team at IFPEN has come up with a new approach to designing and manufacturing this stirred-tank reactor based on additive manufacturing.
An innovative approach
When it came to designing the reactor, IFPEN adopted an innovative scientific approach, still little employed in the field of chemical engineering, based on a combination of l modeling tools simulating fluid flows (Computational Fluid Dynamics, CFD) and experimental validation techniques using additive manufacturing. Once the geometry of the reactor has been generated, an inexpensive, fast-to-produce transparent resin 3D prototype is printed for the purposes of conducting hydrodynamic tests. Optimal internal geometries were achieved thanks to rapid interactions between simulation, prototype production and experimentation. Finally, the ultimate reactor was produced using 3D printing.
An efficient approach
IFPEN has thus been able to come up with a cost-effective and highly reactive approach to designing a reactor that is more suitable for experimental purposes. The time between scientific design and actual production is considerably reduced compared with conventional approaches. Moreover, 3D printing makes it possible to develop reactors of increased complexity and smaller dimensions. Lastly, the finished product matches specifications far more closely than is possible using traditional methods, which in the case of a reactor ensures better control of fluid hydrodynamics.
A Rhône-Alpes development
IFPEN joined forces with various players in the 3D printing and rapid prototyping sector in the Rhône-Alpes region. IFPEN turned to Additive3D for the production of the transparent resin prototypes and 3D&P, the technological spin-off company owned by industrial group Aubry Finance specializing in additive manufacturing, for the production of the metal component.
The success of this first experimental initiative reveals the potential of additive manufacturing in the field of chemistry and offers opportunities in the longer term. Currently applied to experimental facilities, in the future, it may be extended to facilities on an industrial scale. To make this transition possible, 3D printing will need to continue to innovate, particularly in terms of the size of the printing machines and the certification of the components produced.