A step toward a more modern lithium factory

Posted: February 7, 2013 - 6:25pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 9, Issue 2 | 2013

Y‑12 is the only site in the Nuclear Security Enterprise that can produce lithium materials.

Y‑12 is the only site in the Nuclear Security Enterprise that can produce lithium materials, which are essential to the Defense Programs mission. That may come as no surprise. But in January 2012, Y‑12 started replacing its historical lithium production process with Direct Material Manufacturing — a Y‑12 innovation in the works for about the past five years.

“Direct Material Manufacturing is the most significant change in Y‑12 lithium processing methods — and, we believe, one of the site's most significant transformational improvements — since the 1970s,” said Development Technology Deployment Manager Bill Rogerson. “Since January 2012, all material for our mission deliverables has been produced by the Direct Material Manufacturing method.”

This breakthrough materials-recycling method cleans and decontaminates retired components without requiring the lengthy purification, or wet chemistry, phase (chemistry done in the liquid phase) of the traditional operation. The alternative method eliminates the first seven steps of the old process. The remaining steps of the historical method then continue: The cleaned components are crushed and pulverized, and the resultant materials are used in the fabrication of new machining blanks.

“This is a walk-off home run for the Material Recycle and Recovery Program,” said Steve Laggis, director of Infrastructure Programs. “It reduces risk to the worker and the environment, provides a quality product to meet our mission deliverables and begins the journey to a more modern lithium factory. In a time of highly constrained budgets, Y‑12ers have found a new way to do business and to generate savings — savings that are being reinvested here at Y‑12 to continue our improvements to safety, mission and modernization.”

Development researcher Sam Brown agrees that the benefits are considerable. Brown led the research and development effort as part of Y‑12's initiatives to improve productivity and processes to meet commitments on time and within budget.

Direct Material Manufacturing reduces the number of Defense Programs processing steps by about 40 percent, cuts cycle time by a factor of three, halves processing costs and shrinks the required process and storage footprint by about 60,000 square feet. The total includes a no-longer-needed 20,000-square-foot separate gas house.

“The money saved annually through reduced operating costs and processing time is redirected to other areas to meet Defense Programs needs,” Brown said. “The risk of several single-point-of-failure equipment items in the wet chemistry processing stream is also mitigated.”

Rogerson added, “We largely avoid having to spend millions on upgrading wet chemistry equipment that dates back to the 1960s.”

Safety also improves. No more potential fires from skimming material from high-temperature molten baths or working with liquid exothermic chemical processes.

“The Defense Programs steps we've eliminated are some of the most hazardous in the plant,” Brown added. “It's a credit to the people who have worked in such a hazardous operation that they did their due diligence and avoided serious accident.”

Before Direct Material Manufacturing was approved for implementation, several unanticipated problems had to be resolved. “A team across Quality, Process and Product Engineering, Development, and Analytical Chemistry conducted a statistical analysis to determine a path forward,” said Brown. Selection methods for starting materials were modified, techniques were reevaluated and a controlled implementation plan was successfully conducted.

“We overcame a rocky start, corrected issues and have not had a failure since initial implementation,” Brown said. “We've submitted a patent application for the process, and we're now looking at using this approach for other material streams at Y‑12.”