Features - December 2015

NETL-Albany’s Rich Metals Research History Showcased by Local Museum

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The specialty metals research featured in this new exhibit at the Albany Regional Museum largely took place at the NETL Albany research site.

You probably have never heard of Albany, Oregon, but its history is rich in specialty metals research—for various applications—and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) played a huge role in this development. Now the local Albany Regional Museum features a new exhibit that expounds on its history, telling the tale of how bright minds in specialty metals science put Albany on the map.

June 2, 1942, was a significant day for the future of specialty metals research as Congress appropriated $500,000 to establish the Albany laboratory to study how electrical energy could be applied to minerals processing techniques and to develop techniques for processing locally occurring low-grade minerals. The Kroll process—which came about a short time later—is where Albany’s success with specialty metals development began.

Kroll Process

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Leaders in the Albany metals industry developed and made use of the Kroll Process.

You probably have heard of zirconium. It is used in surgical appliances, flash bulbs for cameras, lamp filaments, and poison ivy lotions. The beach sands in Coos Bay, Oregon, (150 miles from the laboratory) are thick with it. In 1945, when researchers at NETL’s Albany laboratory (then part of the Bureau of Mines) were investigating ways to produce zirconium from these sands, Dr. William J. Kroll, a noted metallurgist from Luxemburg, joined the staff. His previous work on a method for reducing titanium tetrachloride with magnesium was then adapted for the production of zirconium affordably and in quantity.

Attracted by this accomplishment, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Bureau of Ships contracted with the Bureau of Mines in 1949 to supply zirconium for land-based atomic reactor use because U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover was seeking a metal or alloy that could survive the demanding conditions of a nuclear reactor in a submarine. Then, on January 21, 1954, the U.S.S. Nautilus submarine was launched and became the first commissioned nuclear powered ship in the United States Navy, marking the beginning of the era of naval nuclear propulsion.

In 1956, the Kroll process was transferred to Wah Chang Albany Corporation and Oregon Metallurgical Corporation for commercial production. Today, nearly all the zirconium produced for reactor use is made using this technology.

At the Albany Museum’s specialty metals exhibit, four key figures are highlighted for their relationship with the specialty metals industry due to the Kroll process’s success: William J. Kroll, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, Stephen W.H. Yih (long time CEO of Wah Chang-Albany, which still uses technologies developed at the NETL-Albany site to produce zirconium and other specialty metals), and Steve Shelton (founder of Oregon Metallurgical Corporation or “Oremet,” a leading titanium producer).

More of NETL-Albany’s successes in specialty metals research follow.

Double Consumable Electrode Vacuum Arc Melting

Initially in search of better methods to prepare zirconium alloy ingots for use in the submarine reactor program, scientists at the Albany site in the 1950s demonstrated the benefit of double vacuum arc melting (VAR). Today, nearly all commercial zirconium, titanium, and hafnium and some steel, cobalt, nickel alloys, and other metals are produced using the Albany-developed double VAR technique. NETL scientists recently patented an electric current locator that improves on the VAR process by allowing them to track the electric arcs’ positions inside the VAR furnace in real time. Knowing the arcs’ location shows how energy is being distributed to the molten metal during remelting. “Seeing” the arcs is a first step toward controlling them and thereby controlling the melting process, which is necessary for consistently defect-free materials. This technology won an R&D 100 award in 2013.

Reactive and Refractory Metals Casting

Albany’s role in using VAR for development of refractory metals, which melt at high temperature, was also important. In 1958, per U.S. Army request, Albany and Army researchers patented a method for processing reactive and refractory metals using VAR for military-grade structural and mechanical components. Their work eventually yielded mold and furnace designs, alloying methods, remote control operations, and other critical process elements for handling titanium, zirconium, hafnium, and molybdenum. The Albany casting technique for molybdenum, developed more than 50 years ago, remains the industry standard.

Reactive and refractory metals and their alloys gave rise to “space age” materials for high-speed aircraft and space reentry vehicles. Today, they are used in commercial jetliners, naval ships, medicines, lighting, sporting goods, and many other everyday commodities. Many reactive and refractory metal castings are produced commercially in the United States and Europe and are poured in equipment directly traceable to the laboratory’s original research.

Armstrong Titanium Reduction Process

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Workers remove an ingot from a heat treating furnace before forging.

Even the though the Kroll process reduced the cost of titanium production, it did not cut costs enough for widespread use of titanium outside the high-priced aerospace markets and some national defense applications. However, International Titanium Powder’s cost-efficient Armstrong Process developed with the help of NETL, lowered production temperatures and pressures for a more marketable product. As part of a team, NETL then developed methods to economically turn Armstrong Process powders into products for the automotive, aerospace, and defense industries such as titanium hatches for military armored vehicles, skirts for the Abrams main battle tank, and tracks for the Crusader. The titanium hatches for armored vehicles are still protecting American soldiers today.

Titanium and Cast Steel Armor

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A cast steel hatch is being poured for P900 Armor.

In the 1980s, NETL developed a technology that is still being used for today’s military armor. This technology can cast steel and other metals in any shape and size, while reducing costs and development times for manufacturers. Most importantly, slotted steel armor made using the NETL technology offers a high level of protection against ballistic attacks and was effectively used in the first Gulf War and Somalia. In 2007, NETL scientists produced a modification of this armor using a new heat treatment to maximize protection against improvised explosive devices. Ballistic tests proved so successful that the Department of Energy transferred its steel casting technology to Rock Island Arsenal to produce the armor for the Army.

Vitrification of Municipal and Other Wastes

Heavy metal and toxic organic contamination of the biosphere by interaction with soil and ground waters is a significant problem worldwide. Landfilling these wastes has proven an inadequate solution. To help solve this problem, Albany scientists, in cooperation with several partners, designed, and constructed a pilot plant equipped with a specially built electric arc furnace. In the early 1990s, over 180,000 lbs. of residues from waste-to-energy plants, fueled by municipal wastes and simulated incinerated, liquid, and as-retrieved radioactive and mixed wastes currently stored at Department of Energy sites and naval shipyard wastes, were melted into a glassy or crystalline form. This process, called vitrification, can solve the leaching problem inherent with landfilling the residues and can decrease their volume by as much as 90 percent.

Improved Refractory Liner for Coal Gasification

NETL-Albany scientists developed a novel refractory material for advanced coal gasification power plants that features a longer service life, leading to greater online availability of the gasifier for coal processing. Previously, rapid deterioration of heat-resistant refractory linings prevented widespread adoption of coal gasification due to replacement (and subsequent down-time) costs. Durable refractory linings protect the metal gasification chamber from its service environment for a longer time, allowing plants to utilize coal gasification, a process that obtains the most energy from the nation’s abundant coal supplies. Harbison-Walker licensed the technology from NETL, conducted additional field trials, and commercialized the product as AUREX™ 95P. It is now the refractory of choice in high-wear areas of a gasifier.

Novel Platinum/Chromium Alloy for the Manufacture of Improved Coronary Stents

Jointly developed by NETL and Boston Scientific Corporation, Inc., (BSCI) this novel alloy is the first austenitic stainless steel formulation to be produced for the coronary stent industry, with a significant concentration of an element, platinum, with high radiopacity—high visibility on x-rays. Better visibility means greater ease and precision of placement of the stent inside the patient’s artery and less chance of damage to the artery. In addition, the greater yield strength of the alloy allowed the stent’s designers at BSCI to make a thinner, more flexible stent that is more easily threaded through the winding path of the artery without doing damage along the way.  Since the 2010 introduction of its new stent using the NETL/BSCI-developed PtCr alloy, BSCI now has produced about a third of the coronary stents utilized throughout the world.

And these are just a few examples of NETL-Albany’s specialty metals successes. The entire body of work is definitely worthy of display.

NETL at the Museum

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Former Oregon Senator Mae Yih (1977-2003), center, visited the Albany Museum to explore the metals exhibit.

The specialty metals exhibit officially opened in November 2015. Several NETL employees worked with museum staff, Bureau of Mines retirees, and key figures from local metallurgical businesses to construct the exhibit. Organized in a timeline that currently spans from 1910 until 1979, the exhibit blends the technical, social, and economic developments in specialty metals that continue to deeply impact Albany to this day.

The exhibit also includes unique artifacts donated by members of the community, like zirconium flatware commemorating the launch of the U.S.S. Nautilus. NETL plans to donate several historic pieces of equipment in support of the exhibit, including a spectrograph used in early specialty metals research. Some of our scientists have volunteered to speak about their careers to K-12 students during their visits to the museum, because educating the next generation of scientists is so important to NETL.

For more information about the NETL Albany site’s part in the area’s metals history, please look at “NETL: A Century of Innovation,” which also details the fascinating parts that our Morgantown and Pittsburgh labs have played in shaping how the nation uses energy through science.