Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Plasma Arc Welding: The Basics

Preliminaries: What is an arc? 

Inert gases used in welding, helium and argon, are made up of loose atoms flying around and banging against themselves and the walls of their container. At high temperatures the atoms speed up and negatively charged electrons are knocked off the atoms. A plasma is  a kind of soup of little, fast-moving, negative electrons, neutral atoms, and big, slow-moving, positively charged ions (what's left of an atom after electrons have been knocked off). Plasmas are neutral because the charge of the ions and electrons balance, but because the electrons and the ions can move independently, plasmas conduct electricity like metals. Plasmas can be started by applying a high electric field to a gas. The electric field (volts per distance) picks up a stray electron and slams it into a neutral atom hard enough to knock out more electrons. An electron avalanche takes place and starts a plasma. This happens when an arc is struck. A high frequency current can do it, too.

As plasma cools off, the electrons move more slowly and are recaptured, and the plasma is no more unless the energy loss to its surroundings is replenished. A voltage imposed on a plasma accelerates the conducting charges and can maintain a plasma indefinitely. A welding arc is a plasma maintained between oppositely charged electrodes. In the GTA (gas, Tungsten, arc) process one electrode is a tungsten rod; the other is the workpiece.

The arc column itself is hot, say 10,000 to 20,000 °C. A voltage drop of around one volt per millimeter is typical for an arc column. Thus if the arc is conducting a 100 amp current, about 100 watts of power is needed to maintain a millimeter of arc column, around the same as a light bulb. The really important voltage drops, through which the electrodes are heated, occur at the electrodes. This will be discussed below.

How a PAW Torch Works 

A plasma torch is like a little rocket engine. The plasma is initiated by a high frequency AC voltage in a chamber inside the torch in an inert "plasma gas." As the plasma gas is fed into the chamber it heats up and expands as well as ionizes. The hot gas rushes out through a water-cooled nozzle as a plasma jet.

The plasma jet can be used directly as a heat source, but usually the arc is transferred to the workpiece. The internal "pilot arc" is no longer necessary once the transference takes place. The transferred arc still heats the plasma gas inside the torch and the plasma gas still rushes out as a plasma jet.


The plasma jet makes a particularly stable arc with less tendency to wander erratically and somewhat greater concentration than a GTAW arc. It is not so sensitive to standoff distance as is a GTAW torch. But especially useful is the ability to operate in the "keyhole" mode.

The plasma jet has kinetic energy that produces a pressure when it impinges against a weld pool. The pressure is enough to push a centimeter or two into a pool of liquid metal, so that a plasma arc can penetrate into the workpiece like an electron beam or a laser, although the penetration mechanism is not the same. Hence plasma arc welds can be deeper and narrower than GTA welds. The number of weld passes can be reduced in changing from GTAW to PAW.

When the PAW process is operated with the arc penetrating all the way through the workpiece the operation is said to be in the "keyholing" mode. The arc impinges on the forward surface of the "keyhole." Melted metal flows around the sides of the keyhole and the streams join behind the keyhole. (The flow of metal is driven by variations in surface tension with temperature, i.e. thermocapillary forces.)

In metals that form tenacious oxides, or sometimes due to contamination in spite of the shield gas used to envelope and protect the keyhole, an oxide layer reminiscent of plastic wrap covers the converging streams of molten metal. A lumpy non-weld results.

But keyholing has a tendency to blow away weld seam contaminants. Where weld seam contamination is a problem PAW in the keyholing mode might be considered. Porosity in aluminum alloys might be reduced in this way. In the latter case special measures need to be taken to avoid problems from the tenacious oxide on the surface of aluminum.

Polarity and Why It Matters 

At the cathode or negative electrode the temperature must be high enough so that the electron emission process keeps the arc supplied. Otherwise the arc goes out. The needed heat is generated when the cooled end of the arc increases in resistance and produces a voltage drop. The heat replenishes the heat conducted away by the electrode metal, the energy required to pull each electron out of the metal, and the energy required to heat each electron to the plasma temperature.

The energy to pull an electron out of a metal is expressed as a voltage drop called the "work function." At the anode or positive electrode the heat that must be supplied to maintain equilibrium is approximately (neglecting thermal radiation effects) the heat conducted away by the electrode metal. Besides heat generated by the higher resistance of a locally cooled plasma, heat is brought to the surface by the amount of the energy gained when an electron enters the electrode metal (work function) and by the greater plasma temperature of the entering electrons.

Because the electrons extract heat from the cathode and deliver heat to the anode, the welding process is considered to be more efficient when operated in "straight polarity," when the torch electrode is negative, the workpiece positive, and electrons flow to the workpiece. Unless there's a reason not to, welding torches are operated in the straight polarity mode.

But there is a reason to weld in "reverse polarity," where the electrons flow away from the workpiece: the cathodic cleaning effect. A high speed movie of the vicinity of a GTA weld pool in the reverse polarity mode will reveal a display of sparkling points of light, miniature explosions continually occurring all over the surface. This is thought to be caused by electrostatic breakdown of a thin surface oxide layer. The positive ions in the arc accumulate on the surface of the oxide layer and induce a balancing negative charge. If the oxide layer is thin, it doesn't take a lot of charge to produce an electric field (volts per distance) big enough to cause the oxide layer to break down in a mini-explosion. Cleaned surface is distinct and visible around the crown of a weld made in reverse polarity.  But to get the cleaning necessary to weld aluminum alloys one takes a hit in power available for welding, and the effective capability of the machine is reduced.

Abstracted from a 2004 NASA document by Arthur Nunes.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Prevent Bulk Material Flash Freezing in Hoppers and Chutes

FRP heating panel
Heaters in stalled on a chute.
A phenomena know as “flash freezing” occurs when aggregate material with trace amounts of absorbed water comes into contact with very cold metal surfaces, resulting in the aggregate instantaneously freezing.  The frozen material then instantly bonds to steel chutes or hoppers (which are at sub-freezing temperatures) causing an immediate, and possibly catastrophic, block in the hopper or chute.

Once this occurs, the cure is often a jack-hammer or other type of brute force method to clear the obstruction It's common for any coal mine, quarry, cement manufacturer, mining facility, or power plant to have a sledge or jack hammer on call for just this purpose. A far better approach is to prevent  sand, cement, ores, and mined products from freezing in the first place. 

The best solution are electric FRP heating panels. FRP heating panels are waterproof, dust tight, and vibration resistant electric heater panels that mount to the exterior walls of the hoppers and chutes. 
Specially designed for use in high shock and high vibration applications, their robust construction and corrosion resistance provides long life. 

FRP heating panel
Multiple heaters on a round hopper.
Because these atmospheres are normally dusty, and occasionally ignitable,  FRP panels are available with FM approval for use in hazardous areas. Furthermore, because hoppers, ducts, and chutes come in a never-ending variety of sizes and shapes, FPR panels are easily customized to conform in shapes and size to virtually application. 

If you work in a plant or facility where bulk material absorbs ambient moisture, and the possibility of freezing exists, you should learn more about FRP heating panels and their benefits they provide in reducing downtime, and more efficient operations. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Heat Treatment Controllers

ICE STAR manufactures fully digital heat precise and reliable treatment controllers. The ICE STAR controllers ISQ and ISC have from 6 to 12 controlling thermocouple's and up to 36 monitoring thermocouple's. More measurement points are available by connecting up to 14 controllers to each other wirelessly or with cables. The controllers are designed for any kind of heat treatment consoles and furnaces, and can be mounted inside or to front panel. Hotfoil-EHS is the North America representative for ICE STAR.

For more information, visit https://hotfoilehs/icestar or call 609.588.0900.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Common Types of Process Heating Systems and Equipment

Electric Tank Heaters
External Electric Vessel Heater

In all process heating systems, energy is transferred to the material to be treated. Direct heating methods generate heat within the material (e.g., microwave, induction, or controlled exothermic reaction), whereas indirect methods transfer energy from a heat source to the material by conduction, convection, radiation, or a combination of these functions. In most processes, an enclosure is needed to isolate the heating process and the environment from each other. Functions of the enclosure include, but are not restricted to, the containment of radiation (e.g., microwave or infrared), the confinement of combustion gases and volatiles, the containment of the material itself, the control of the atmosphere surrounding the material, and combinations thereof.

Common industrial process heating systems fall in one of the following categories:
Large Heat Treated Parts
Large heat treated parts - still red-hot.
  • Fuel-based process heating systems 
  • Electric-based process heating systems 
  • Steam-based process heating systems 
  • Other process heating systems, including heat recovery, heat exchange systems, and fluid heating systems. 
The choice of the energy source depends on the availability, cost, and efficiency; and, in direct heating systems, the compatibility of the exhaust gases with the material to be heated. Hybrid systems use a combination of process heat systems by using different energy sources, or different heating methods with the same energy source.

Hotfoil-EHS are skilled experts in a wide variety of process heating systems design and fabrication. Contact them at 609-588-0900 or visit their website at

Friday, September 8, 2017

Large, Custom Heat Treat Furnace Fabrication

The video below demonstrates the erection of a 16' x 16' x 62' heat treat furnace built out of a 6x6 I-Beam skeletal structure with 11 gauge steel skin. Full size doors, two per end, will allow the furnace to heat loads using it's full volume. The furnace is equipped with eight 3-Million BTU burners, one at either end and 3 down each side, to circulate the air. Four dampers are included, two at each end. It will move back and forth on a rail system by (16) 10" crane wheels. A hydraulic system will act to lift the furnace 3" in the air off the hearth. This will allow the furnace to move freely and without damaging the insulation on the bottom seals. It will be controlled via a remote HMI screen with full SCADA capabilities.

For more information, visit or call 609.588.0900.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Custom Mobile Heat Treating Trucks

Hotfoil-EHS designs and manufactures custom mobile rigs for remote heat treatment applications.

Custom designs include a variety of generator sizes, power consoles, interior workspaces and layouts, air conditioning, and easy access to all electrical components. For more information, visit or call 609-588-0900.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Basics of Heat Treating

Heat treating furnace
Interior view of heat treating furnace.
Heat treating refers to the heating and cooling operations performed on metal work-pieces to change their mechanical properties, their metallurgical structure, or their residual stress state.

Heat treating includes stress-relief treating, normalizing, annealing, austenitizing, hardening, quenching, tempering, martempering, austempering, and cold treating. Annealing, as an example, involves heating a metallic material to, and holding it at, a suitable temperature, followed by furnace cooling at an appropriate rate. Steel castings may be annealed to facilitate cold working or machining, to improve mechanical or electrical properties, or to promote dimensional stability.  Steel vessels, girders, pipes, and structures are heat treated prior to, and after welding to improve weld quality and strength.

Gas fired furnace used for heat treating.
Gas fired furnace used for heat treating.
Heat treating is performed in conventional furnaces, salt baths, or fluidized-bed furnaces. The basic conventional furnace consists of an insulated chamber with an external reinforced steel shell, a heating system for the chamber, and one or more access doors to the heated chamber.

Heating systems are direct fired or indirect heated. With direct-fired furnace equipment, work being processed is directly exposed to the products of combustion, generally referred to as flue products. Gas- and oil-fired furnaces are the most common types of heat treating equipment. Indirect heating is performed in electrically heated furnaces and radiant-tube-heated furnaces with gas-fired tubes, oil-fired tubes, or electrically heated tubes.