CSEM (Centre Suisse d’ Electronique et de Microtechnique), headquartered in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, is coordinating a high-profile EU-funded project to enhance the performance of thermal control systems by developing additively manufactured pipes with embedded sensors. The system will also include an energy recovery device to power the embedded electronics and enable automatic, wireless data transfer.
The Advanced Heat Exchange Devices (AHEAD) project began summer 2022 and is expected to last two years. It aims to revolutionise thermal control systems – critical components of a number of high-performance devices like satellites and space rockets. Most thermal control systems in use today are heavy, bulky and require a myriad of connection cables. With AHEAD, the goal is to develop systems that are compact, less expensive and wireless, allowing for real-time data collection and improved efficiency.
“Broadly speaking, we aim to develop technology bricks that can be used to integrate electronic components like cables, connectors and sensors into many different kinds of 3D-printed objects,” stated Hervé Saudan, a project coordinator at CSEM. “The ability to embed sensors into process equipment will be an important feature of Industry 4.0. The data collected by these sensors can be used to feed artificial intelligence algorithms for process control, process optimisation and predictive maintenance.”
The consortium hopes to bring its technology to the pre-industrial stage and make it suitable for a broad range of applications including industrial heating and cooling systems, irrigation mechanisms, surgical instruments & implants, machine tooling, robotics and automotive parts.
The two applications that the project engineers are currently targeting are space modules and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)’s new particle detectors.
CERN plans to use the sensor-equipped pipes in the thermal control systems for the silicon detectors its engineers are currently developing. The detectors will be used to identify particles released from a multitude of collisions. Using the pipes being created under AHEAD, the detectors’ thermal control systems are expected to be able to run without the complicated cable set-up that’s usually required, saving space and allowing for better thermal control through temperature readings taken directly at strategic points. The new technology will also let engineers replace existing coolants with ones that are more effective and less damaging to the environment.
“Technological breakthroughs are often needed before particle detectors can deliver the extraordinary performance that’s expected of them,” stated Paolo Petagna, a CERN project manager. “These breakthroughs could lead to a totally new concept with applications well beyond the one originally intended, bringing benefits to important industries. That’s what we’re seeing with AHEAD.”
One of the project’s key partners – Thales Alenia Space (TAS) – is studying how the sensor-equipped pipes could be employed in the International Space Station’s pressurised modules and in NASA’s future Lunar Gateway space station. TAS also plans to install the pipes in two-phase mechanically pumped fluid loops, which are a type of thermal control system used in its telecommunications satellites.
Martin Raynaud, a thermal specialist at TAS, explained, “The lighter, more compact design enabled by the pipes, along with improved precision in temperature measurements and faster assembly, are key benefits for us. They allow for better thermal control, which is a critical factor in all space systems. That gives us a significant competitive advantage over rivals in Europe and the US.”
“Switzerland is the European country with the most 3D printing patent applications filed per capita,” concluded Hervé Saudan. “And Europe in general is at the top of this field. The number of patent applications has surged over the past few years, growing by 36% per annum between 2015 and 2018 according to a study by the European Patent Office. Today, Europe leads the ranking, ahead of China and the US. This trend is a real boon to the Swiss economy, as the country’s competitiveness and ability to attract skilled workers depend largely on its capacity for innovation.”