CSEM is coordinating a high-profile EU-funded project to improve the performance of thermal control systems through the development of 3D-printed tubes with embedded sensors. Not only could these smart pipes potentially open up new avenues of fundamental research for both CERN and the European space industry, but they could also be used in areas ranging from industrial heating and cooling systems to irrigation mechanisms for Industry 4.0. The Advanced Heat Exchange Devices (AHEAD) project will reinforce Switzerland’s strengths in 3D printing and help anchor the country’s position at the forefront of innovation.
Launched this summer, the project aims to revolutionize thermal management systems – critical components of several high-performance devices such as satellites and space rockets. Most thermal control systems in use today are heavy, bulky and require a large number of connecting cables. AHEAD’s goal is to develop systems that are compact, less expensive, and wireless, enabling real-time data collection and improved efficiency.
The project consortium, consisting of six partner organizations, wants to develop a new type of 3D-printed tube in which temperature sensors and heating elements are embedded in the inner surface of the tube. The system will also include an energy recovery device to power the embedded electronics and enable automatic, wireless data transfer.
“More generally, we want to develop technology building blocks that can be used to integrate electronic components such as cables, connectors and sensors into many different types of 3D printed objects,” said Hervé Saudan, project coordinator at CSEM. “The ability to embed sensors in process plants will be an important feature of Industry 4.0. The data collected from these sensors can be used to feed artificial intelligence algorithms for process control, process optimization and predictive maintenance.”
The consortium hopes to advance its technology to the pre-industrial stage and make it suitable for a wide range of applications including industrial heating and cooling systems, irrigation mechanisms, surgical instruments and implants, machine tools, robotics and automotive parts.
The two applications project engineers are currently targeting are space modules and CERN’s new particle detectors.
CERN plans to use the sensor-equipped tubes in the thermal control systems for the silicon detectors its engineers are currently working on. The detectors are used to identify particles released in a variety of collisions. Thanks to the pipes created as part of AHEAD, the thermal control systems of the detectors can be operated without the complicated cable runs usually required – this saves space and allows for better thermal control through temperature measurements taken directly at strategic points. The new technology will also allow engineers to replace existing coolants with ones that are more effective and less polluting.
“Technological breakthroughs are often required before particle detectors can achieve the extraordinary performance expected of them,” said Paolo Petagna, project manager at CERN. “These breakthroughs could lead to a whole new concept with applications far beyond those originally intended, bringing benefits to important industries. We see that at AHEAD.”
One of the project’s key partners – Thales Alenia Space (TAS) – is investigating how the sensor-equipped tubes could be used in the pressure modules of the International Space Station and NASA’s future Lunar Gateway space station. TAS also plans to install the tubes in mechanically pumped two-phase liquid circuits, which are a type of thermal control system used in its telecommunications satellites.
“The lighter, more compact design enabled by the tubes, along with improved temperature measurement accuracy and faster assembly, are key benefits for us. They allow better thermal control, which is a critical factor in all space systems. This gives us a significant competitive advantage over competitors in Europe and the US,” explains Martin Raynaud, heat specialist at TAS.
The AHEAD project is scheduled to run for two years. It reflects Switzerland’s outstanding innovative position and its know-how in 3D printing technology. “Switzerland is the European country with the most 3D printing patent applications per capita,” said Hervé Saudan. “And Europe in general is at the forefront in this area. According to a study by the European Patent Office, the number of patent applications has risen sharply in recent years, growing by 36% per year between 2015 and 2018. Today, Europe leads the ranking ahead of China and the USA. This development is a real boon for the Swiss economy, as the country’s competitiveness and ability to attract a skilled workforce depends heavily on its ability to innovate.”