DARPA commissions Elementum 3D to 3D print the world’s rarest metal – 3DPrint.com


Rhenium, the last of the stable elements to be discovered, is one of the rarest elements in the earth’s crust. It has the highest melting point of all metals except tungsten, as well as the highest boiling point of all stable elements. finally, it is the fourth most dense element. Its rarity and unique properties make it an extremely sought after and expensive commodity, most often used in the manufacture of jet engines. Increasingly, rhenium is also in demand for rocket and missile propulsion systems.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), one of the oldest and most influential R&D organizations in the US federal government, has awarded a Direct to Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to Elementum 3D, so that the latter organization can develop an additive manufacturing (AM) method for rhenium applications. The same qualities that make the metal so precious also make it a challenge to handle via conventional metallurgical techniques. The high melting point of rhenium makes it particularly expensive to work with and also makes it very susceptible to strain hardening. As such, the metal is almost always used as an alloy with other metals, primarily tungsten and nickel. One of the primary goals of the DARPA grant to Elementum is to develop solutions that use rhenium as a base, rather than just an alloy.

The SBIR program is a US Small Business Administration (SBA) grant program that distributes approximately $2.5 billion annually to fund small business R&D. Most of the money ($1 billion) is, unsurprisingly, spent by the Department of Defense, with the remaining $1.5 billion going to institutions such as the National Institute of Health (NIH ) and the Ministry of Agriculture. SBIR Phase II grants are for “up to $1 million, for a maximum of 2 years”. Companies receive direct Phase II grants when they demonstrate that they have completed Phase I milestones with non-SBIR money. This means Elementum has already documented promising results with early phases of 3D printed rhenium research.

Image courtesy of Elementum 3D

Elementum 3D, which specializes in maximizing the repertoire of metal solutions available to the AM industry – specifically for Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF) 3D printing – has received SBIR funding for at least three more projects. The company received Phase I funding from NASA for a project completed in 2020: a heat test of a 3D-printed metallic fuel injector, in collaboration with Masten Space Systems. Elementum then received two Phase I contracts, in 2021; one was still from NASA, to develop AM techniques for soft magnetic materials. The other came from the US Navy, to develop modeling frameworks for 3D printed metal alloys.

Part of Elementum’s latest Phase II deal, with DARPA, is that the latter organization — assuming it likes the results — can offer Elementum a contract to ramp up testing for possible commercial 3D printing of rhenium. This is the latest in a series of moves by US military and intelligence investment funds to influence markets for 3D printing materials, especially metals. As I noted the other day, this could be a signal that the AM industry as a whole is about to grow and consolidate. It is of course too early to say whether either of these things turn out to be the case, but a variety of other factors, also mainly geopolitical, also point in that direction.


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