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Scientists Say Furnace Melts Any Metal

January 13, 2003

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Even the strongest metals melt under the extreme heat of a new furnace that will help scientists conduct higher quality research and develop new products.

``It’s a new tool in our tool box,″ said Larry Jones, director of the Ames Laboratory Materials Preparation Center, a U.S. Department of Energy lab operated by Iowa State University.

The bright, blue Retech Model 150 Plasma Lab Furnace, which arrived at the lab in the fall, will melt just about anything, Jones said. It generates temperatures higher than 10,000 degrees Celsius or more than 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bars of metal are pushed into the 30-by-50-foot chamber as a plasma torch, powered by helium and argon, heats and melts them.

A copper mold, cooled through a water system, catches the molten metal. The system eliminates the need for other metal molds, or crucibles, to hold the bars as they’re heated, Jones said. The molds sometimes contaminate the molten metal by transferring their own material into it at the high melting temperatures.

``Purity is absolutely what I call job one. The researchers are looking to understand the fundamental intrinsic properties of the material,″ he said.

The $500,000 furnace will aid new developments.

For example, the lab is working on a magnetic refrigeration alloy. The alloy responds to changing temperatures when placed in a magnetic field. Instead of a refrigerator using a compressor and Freon, it would use the metal alloys and magnetism.

``It will take up heat from surroundings and essentially act as a refrigerator. It would get rid of Freon altogether,″ Jones said.

Environmentalists say the promise is amazing if it holds true.

Jones said the magnetic refrigeration alloy is made from three metals that are very reactive and stretch the limits of most crucibles when melted. With the new furnace, the lab can make easy work of melting all three.

The furnace was built by Retech Systems LLC, based in Ukiah, Calif. The design has been around since the early 1990s, but only four are in use. Jared Paz, a product manager with Retech, said other federal labs, including Los Alamos National Laboratory and a French defense lab, use the same model furnace.

To provide the electricity needed for the new research tool, an electrical service panel was added to the metal development section of the lab. City water lines were tapped to help supply the 72 gallons per minute of water needed to cool the furnace. A new air collection system helps vent the furnace’s exhaust.

Jones said some of the initial tasks for the furnace are to consolidate the lab’s metals to reduce surface oxidation and decrease storage space.

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On the Net:

U.S. Department of Energy: http://www.energy.gov/

Iowa State University: http://www.iastate.edu/

Retech Systems LLC: http://www.retechsystemsllc.com/