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Pitt prints in three dimensions

Minking+Chyu+stands+by+a+3D+printer+in+Benedum+Hall.+Emily+Brindley+%7C+Staff+Writer
Minking Chyu stands by a 3D printer in Benedum Hall. Emily Brindley | Staff Writer

Minking Chyu stands by a 3D printer in Benedum Hall. Emily Brindley | Staff Writer

Minking Chyu stands by a 3D printer in Benedum Hall. Emily Brindley | Staff Writer

By Emily Brindley / Staff Writer

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The labs beneath the basement of Benedum Hall look pretty barren to the uninformed visitor.

But the Additive Manufacturing Lab, where Minking Chyu works, holds the weight of several million dollars’ worth of equipment.

This lab’s purpose is additive manufacturing, commonly called 3-D printing. The most common type of 3-D printers create objects by depositing a small amount of plastic on the print bed, then adding additional plastic layer by layer until the plastic takes form. The machines in Chyu’s lab, however, are not your average 3-D printers — they use metal instead of plastic.

These three  expensive machines are more sophisticated than consumer-grade plastic printers, and cost from $350,000 to $1 million. In June, the National Energy Technology Laboratory awarded Pitt a grant through the University Turbine Systems Research Program. The grant included $798,594 from the Department of Energy and $216,896 in matching funds from Pitt, totaling more than $1 million.

The funds will support Chyu’s research on using 3-D printing to create layers of metal to fortify the components inside gas turbines, which power most commerical jets, that will offer protection from the hot, harsh environment within the engine. 

Pitt bought these printers over the past five years and used them for various research projects before Chyu began his current project. Chyu wants to see these protective shields become the standard in turbine engine design.

The coating is made of a strong metal alloy — also known as an oxide dispersion strengthened alloy — that is difficult to manipulate in traditional cutting processes — or “subtractive manufacturing.”

“Additive manufacturing — 3-D printing — has been around for a while, but gas turbines are their own machine,” Chyu said. “They aren’t kitchen equipment, or household equipment — they’re a hostile environment.”

Chyu is the Leighton and Mary Orr Chair Professor in the Swanson School of Engineering, the Associate Dean for International Initiatives and the Dean of the recently revealed Sichuan University–Pittsburgh Institute in China. Chyu received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1986, and has published nearly 300 technical papers, many relating to power and propulsion systems such as gas turbines.

To someone without scientific inclinations, the machines in Chyu’s lab may look like big, bulky boxes — but these boxes are on the leading edge of innovation.

Shelley Martin, the spokesperson at NETL, said in an e-mail that the NETL received more than 30 applications for the 2015 funding. The projects it selected, including Chyu’s, “will facilitate the development of next-generation turbine technology,” Martin said.

Chyu’s project, which he expects to be a three-year venture, is one of nine that the UTSR selected for funding in 2015.

Markus Chmielus, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, said past 3-D printing projects at Pitt have received funding from America Makes and Research for Additive Manufacturing in Pennsylvania. However, this is the first UTSR grant that Pitt has received for 3-D printing.

Chyu said the novelty of this project introduces some unavoidable problems. For instance, Chyu will have to design the entire process from scratch, and handle any unforeseen difficulties as they arise.

“Any new project has risks, especially when it involves very new ideas,” Chyu said. “But the risk is worth the innovations to the field.”

Albert To, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, said the Swanson School of Engineering has three 3-D printers that “print” in metal. Although there are many more plastic printers across campus, To said these metal machines are too cutting-edge to be widespread.

Chyu said, at the end the project, he hopes his research will apply to the actual manufacturing process of turbine engine parts.

“This approach will bring us over a new horizon,” Chyu said. “We’re glad to be the first one to undertake that.”

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Pitt prints in three dimensions