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Plasma cutting

This article is about the common manufacturing process. For various fictional weapons, see plasma rifle and directed-energy weapon.

Plasma cutting is a process that is used to cut steel and other metals (or sometimes other materials) using a plasma torch. In this process, an inert gas (in some units, compressed air) is blown at high speed out of a nozzle; at the same time an electrical arc is formed through that gas from the nozzle to the surface being cut, turning some of that gas to plasma. The plasma is sufficiently hot to melt the metal being cut and moves sufficiently fast to blow molten metal away from the cut. Plasma can also be used for plasma arc welding and other things.



  The HF Contact type typically found in budget machines uses a high frequency high voltage spark to ionise the air through the torch head and initiate an arc. The arc can only be formed if the torch is in contact with the job material. HF Contact type machines are not suitable for applications involving CNC cutting.

The Pilot Arc type uses a two cycle approach to producing plasma. First, a high-voltage, low current circuit is used to initialize a very small high intensity spark within the torch body, thereby generating a small pocket of plasma gas. This is referred to as the pilot arc. The pilot arc has a return electrical path built into the torch head. The pilot arc will maintain until it is brought into proximity of the workpiece where it ignites the main plasma cutting arc. Plasma arcs are extremely hot and are in the range of 15,000 degrees Celsius.

Plasma is an effective means of cutting thin and thick materials alike. Hand held torches can usually cut up to 2 in (48 mm) thick steel plate, and stronger computer-controlled torches can pierce and cut steel up to 12 inches (300 mm) thick. Formerly, plasma cutters could only work on conductive materials, however new technologies allow the plasma ignition arc to be enclosed within the nozzle thus allowing the cutter to be used for non-conductive workpieces.

Since plasma cutters produce a very hot and very localized 'cone' to cut with, they are extremely useful for cutting sheet metal in curved or angled shapes.

Starting methods

Plasma cutters use a number of methods to start the pilot arc, depending on the environment the unit is to be used in and its age. Older cutters use a high voltage, high frequency circuit to start the arc. This method has a number of disadvantages, including risk of electrocution, difficulty of repair, sparkgap maintenance, and the large amount of radio frequency emissions. Plasma cutters working near sensitive electronics, such as CNC hardware or computers, use the contact start method. The nozzle and electrode are in contact. The nozzle is the cathode, and the electrode is the anode. When the plasma gas begins to flow, the nozzle is blown forward. A third, less common method is capacitive discharge into the primary circuit via a Silicon Controlled Rectifier.

Inverter plasma cutters

Analog plasma cutters, typically requiring more than 2 kilowatts, use a heavy mains frequency transformer. Inverter plasma cutters rectify the mains voltage into DC, which is fed into either an IGBT or a MOSFET. IGBT transistors operate independently of one another whilst MOSFET transistors need to be paralleled. With paralleled MOSFET transistors if one of the transistors activates prematurely it can lead to a cascading failure of one quarter of the inverter. IGBT transistors do not have this problem as they are independent however are very expensive to manufacture and generally used in high current machines where it is not possible to parallel sufficient MOSFET transistors. The transistors are switched at thousands of Hertz, which greatly reduces the magnetic flux in the step down transformer, and therefore the size of the transformer is reduced accordingly. The switch mode topology is referred to as a dual transistor off-line forward converter. Although lighter and more powerful, some inverter plasma cutters, especially those without power factor correction, cannot be run from a generator.

Plasma gouging

Plasma gouging is a related process, typically performed on the same equipment as plasma cutting. Instead of cutting the material, plasma gouging uses a different torch configuration (torch nozzles and gas diffusers are usually different), and a longer torch-to-workpiece distance, to blow away metal. Plasma gouging can be used in a variety of applications, including removing a weld for rework. The additional sparks generated by the process requires the operator to wear a leather shield protecting their hand and forearm. Torch leads also can be protected by a leather sheath.

CNC cutting methods

Plasma cutters have also been used in CNC machinery. Manufacturers build CNC cutting tables, some with the cutter built in to the table. The idea behind CNC tables is to allow a computer to control the torch head making clean sharp cuts. Modern CNC plasma equipment is capable of multi-axis cutting of thick material, allowing opportunities for complex welding seams on CNC welding equipment that is not possible otherwise. For thinner material cutting, plasma cutting is being progressively replaced by laser cutting, due mainly to the laser cutter's superior hole-cutting abilities.

A specialized use of CNC controlled Plasma Cutters has been in the HVAC industry. Software will process information on ductwork and create flat patterns to be cut on the cutting table by the plasma torch. This technology has enormously increased productivity within the industry since its introduction in the early 1980s.

New technology

In the past decade plasma torch manufacturers have engineered new models with a smaller nozzle and a thinner plasma arc. This allows near laser quality on plasma cut edges. Several manufacturers have combined precision CNC control with these torches to allow fabricators to produce parts that require little or no finishing.


Plasma torches were once quite expensive, usually at least a thousand U.S. dollars. For this reason they were usually only found in professional welding shops and very well-stocked private garages and shops. However, modern plasma torches are becoming cheaper, and now are within the price range of many hobbyists. Older units may be very heavy, but still portable, while some newer ones with inverter technology weigh only a few pounds yet equal or exceed the capacities of older ones.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Plasma_cutting". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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