Feb 12, 2016 | By Alec

‘A snowball’s chance in hell’ – something we say about things that are virtually impossible. While a snowball might, theoretically, have a very small chance of surviving hellish conditions, we all know it won’t. It seems a waste of time to put that theory to the test, but yesterday GE has unveiled its ‘Unimpossible Missions’ project to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Edison, the father of electricity. As part of that project, they decided to combine 3D printing and GE’s top level industrial engineering capacity to realize the virtually impossible, and have enabled a snowball to survive hellish conditions. Check out the video below.

If you’re an American citizen with an interest in science, 11 February is a day you won’t have missed. It’s not just Edison’s birthday, but also National Inventors Day, as proclaimed by President Reagan in the 1980s. Thomas Edison, of course, talked about seemingly impossible things, but developing the first type of gramophone and creating a stable light bulb was just about as far as he got. To honor those achievements, GE (together with BBDO New York) decided to create three cool videos of projects that we all consider impossible. Aside from giving a snowball a chance in hell, they also made a wall talk and caught lightening in a bottle. All, they say, in an effort to debunk popular idioms with the help of GE’s research labs.

As you can see below, all clips are about two to three minutes long and present scientific achievements in a fantastically cool, James Bond-esque style, doubtlessly also in an attempt to make science (and GE) cool. “We are always looking for ways to talk about the great work that goes on at GE and marry it with the wonder and awe of science," said Linda Boff, CMO at GE. “As a brand, we are constantly thinking about what's new and next for the world with our technology, and to mirror that it in our marketing and the way we tell our story.” But exposing a snowball to hellish heat obviously interested us the most, because it involved 3D printing.

And it certainly is a very impressive scientific achievement. Essentially, they packed a snowball in a container capable of withstanding what GE believes is closest to hell on earth: a molten metal vat with a temperature of over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. To do so, they have packed the snowball in a simple ABS 3D printed container, which they placed in a vessel made from a super alloy typically used in jet engines – a metal that has to withstand that kind of heat on a daily basis. The container was then filled up with dry ice. That is then lowered into a vat of molten metal slag and once it comes out, lo and behold, the snowball is still intact! It perfectly illustrates just how heat-resistant top level materials used in jet engines, nuclear reactors and gas turbines really are. While the outside of the vessel heated up to 1,100 degrees Celsius, the snowball remained a nice, chilly minus 100 degrees Celsius.

All this sounds pretty remarkable, but materials processing engineer Steve Buresh, who works at GE Global Research, revealed that it isn’t so difficult when working with a team of top level mechanical engineers, chemists, physicists, and materials scientists. As he explained on the GE website, they had all the experience on board that they needed. “Most of the folks work on jet engines and gas turbines, but others specialize in oil and gas, healthcare and even lighting. In medicine, they are exploring materials for X-ray targets that must take a lot of heat. Their insights were very helpful,” he reveals. He himself was involved in making and testing the vessel and designing the insulation setup. All in all, it took a few weeks to prepare for the actual test.

As he explains, the team quickly reached a consensus on developing an adequate insulation container. “We focused on a nickel-based super alloy that’s normally used to build gas turbine shrouds and shields and can handle as much as 1,300 degrees Celsius. The wall of the vessel was about an eighth of an inch thick and we lined it with 2 inches of fibrous insulation made from alumina-silicate that’s normally on the outside of things like a jet engine,” he reveals. The dry ice interior (with a 3D printed container in the middle) also helped. “The sphere would sit in the dry ice and hold the snowball. We ran the calculations and estimated we had enough to lower the temperature from 1,100 degrees Celsius on the outside to minus 100 degrees on the inside.”

Remarkably, the only thing they didn’t engineer to the max was the 3D printed container. While GE has plenty of experience with metal 3D printing, it is just a simple ABS container. “Its main function was to prevent the snowball from getting crushed. The insulation, which was a bit like a blanket, also helped to keep the snowballs from breaking,” he explains.

But even now, they weren’t sure how the experiment would go. “The foundry was in a remote location and we couldn’t bring the tools with us to measure the temperature of the slag we immersed it in,” the engineer explains. “Waiting for the vessel to cool down seemed like forever. We lost some of the dry ice and there was a slag and oxide layer on the outside of the vessel, but the snowball were intact. We were elated. It’s really the power of the GE Store, the idea that we have so many experts of different disciplines and can bring them together to leverage that knowledge and experience. I saw it happen.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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