But what if we used an abrasive that is not degraded in the mixing process, and further one that can be more easily separated from the cuttings and spent water? The candidate is steel, which can be formed into small particles that do not degrade in size as they move through the mixing chamber, and generally hold shape even after they have hit the target. Steel also has the advantage that it can be magnetically removed from the jet stream as the flow is collected, and with no significant degradation in size it can then be readily recycled. In cases where we have monitored the recyclability of steel shot, we were able to re-use it more than fourteen times without seeing any degradation in performance. Re-using it this many times more than offsets the increased price of the original material, and will, in a short time, also pay for the relatively low costs of a magnetic separator.
Unfortunately it is not quite that simple a choice. There are a number of other considerations, which must be addressed to make the system work effectively, some of which may make the process too expensive. Three of the areas that need to be addressed form the subject of this post.
The first comes about as a result of the shape of the particles, and their retained mass and velocity on leaving the focusing tube. More than most other abrasives steel retains some elasticity during the cutting to the point that where the cutting and rebounding streams are not carefully confined, the particles can escape upwards into the cutting room. Once in the air they move at high speed, and bounce around the room, so that they can reach unanticipated places and can also be a hazard to folk doing the work.
Figure 1. Slot depths cut into granite by steel shot (left) and garnet (right)
The second problem relates to the cutting effectiveness. When cutting a brittle material the steel shot has a number of advantages, since the energy on impact is focused in the very small volume of the sphere in contact with the target. This improves the ability of the shot to generate and grow cracks in the impact zone and thereby improves the performance of the cut, over that of the mineral abrasives.
Figure 2. Relative performance of steel over garnet and sand in cutting dolomite, under otherwise similar conditions
However, when cutting ductile materials, such as metal, steel shot is not a good tool, since the focusing of the force means that the shot may get buried or just rebound from the target, without the tearing and plowing action that comes with the use of a more regular abrasive. One way to overcome the problem is to switch from a steel shot to steel grit, which is also available. The relative benefit can be illustrated by using the change from using glass spheres to using them after they have been broken into sharp fragments.
Figure 3. Effect of change in particle shape when using glass particles in cutting ductile composite material (after Faber and Oweinah).
This, by itself may not be a complete answer, since the process of making the grit makes it a little more vulnerable to abrasion and wear during the cutting process, but we have seen that it is possible to recycle most of the abrasive a number of times. However, because of the change in shape, it becomes a little more difficult to feed the abrasive into the cutting stream, and there have been occasions where the grit has bound up in the feed tube. This has, therefore, to be sized and the flow path designed, to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
Figure 4. Cuts made into tool steel using steel shot (left) and garnet (right)
The other change is to use a harder steel than normal. And here please note that there is a difference between the hardness of the steel and its toughness. As American Cutting Edge notes:
Hardness vs. Toughness: Generally as hardness increases, toughness decreases. Toughness is desirable when blades are heavily impacted, hardness when a blade is exposed to corrosive or abrasive materials.In general where the grit is being used to cut into other metals (which can include steels) the hardness of the cutting abrasive should be considerably higher than that of the target material.
Hardness is related to the amount of carbon in steel. Often the lower the carbon, the higher the toughness. Also, some steels do not perform at lower hardness as they were designed for use at higher hardness. . . . . . . . Hardness is a characteristic of a solid material expressing its resistance to permanent deformation. The Rockwell or Vickers hardness scales are most commonly used in the industrial blade industry.
Toughness on the other hand is the maximum amount of energy a material can absorb before fracturing, which is different than the amount of force that can be applied. Toughness tends to be small for brittle materials, because it is elastic and plastic deformations that allow materials to absorb large amounts of energy.
Which comes to the third consideration, which is that steel abrasive can rust, and therefore, immediately after it has been recovered and washed, it should be effectively dried. This has proved to be more difficult to manage than originally anticipated, since, particularly where the particles are then stored for some time before re-use, any moisture present can create enough rust to “glue” the particles together. Which renders them effectively useless for further recycling and additional use.
So there are considerable pitfalls that can arise in making use of steel as a cutting abrasive, but where the jobs exist where it does effectively cut significantly better than the alternative (say in rock-cutting applications) and where the cutting zone can be shielded, and the particles rapidly recovered, dried and stored for relatively rapid recycling at an economic price, then it can be a productive way of reducing cost, while improving throughput. (And lest you think this is a new idea Gulf Oil did extensive work on abrasive jet drilling of oilwells starting in the mid-sixties, with some favorable results, but that is another story).