Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Ron Walli (wallira@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations


ORNL, Vortek have solution to surface processing needs

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., June 7, 2001 — Manufacturers working to produce better wear- and corrosion-resistant coatings and materials are invited to come to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and capture a bolt of lightning, courtesy of Vortek Industries of Canada.

At a ceremony today at the Department of Energy facility, researchers noted that the 300,000-watt radiant plasma source is the most powerful lamp in the world. It is now available at ORNL to manufacturers through a memorandum of understanding signed by Bill Madia, director of ORNL, and Reg Allen, president of Vortek, located in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"Vortek enjoys a very close and fruitful relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory," Allen said. "We believe that this technology has a great future, and I can think of no better window on the world of manufacturing technology than Oak Ridge."

The lamp, which converts electrical energy into radiant energy - like that of the sun - was originally developed by Vortek to light huge areas. ORNL Metals and Ceramics Division researcher Craig Blue discovered, however, that it is a great tool for fusing wear-resistant coatings to aluminum and other alloys. The lamp has many applications, ranging from coating parts for automobiles and construction equipment to coating the inside of large-caliber gun barrels. It may also be used to apply the skin - or coating - to parts of aircraft and the space shuttle.

Blue, colleagues at ORNL, Vortek and Robotic Workspace Technologies have adapted the lamp to make better use of its power in the materials processing field. The changes include full personal computer-based control of the lamp and robotics, laser positioning of the lamp, atmosphere control systems, water window protection of the lamp, three-dimensional mapping, data acquisition systems, PC-based part rotational systems and optical temperature measurement systems. The changes allow for processing materials in a controlled manner while developing the fundamental understanding necessary for practical industry applications.

The new technology is now ready for use by manufacturers who can work with ORNL in a number of ways.

"We're concentrating on working with industrial partners who have very specific needs," Blue said. "The relationship can be for a one-time project or we can set up a cooperative research and development agreement that would be more long term."

While lightweight alloys are critical to reducing weight of, for example, autos and trucks, they do not have the wear properties needed for long life. By coating aluminum with very thin coatings of nickel (or copper) and tungsten carbide, manufacturers can gain the advantages of light weight and not sacrifice longevity. And by using the radiant plasma source, they're able to perform the process more quickly with better results.

"Using this lamp is like painting with a roller instead of a brush," Blue said. "We can treat an area 35 centimeters wide with one pass instead of the industry standard of 3 millimeters."

With the Vortek plasma lamp and ORNL's materials expertise, coatings can be applied 10 times faster than with conventional techniques with no degradation of the wear-resistant coating. The possibilities are virtually endless.

For example, Native American Technologies of Golden, Colo., is using a computer aided design system to guide the lamp and produce thermally formed shapes from flat metal plates. No force is applied to form the plate, so no tooling is needed. That means the company can produce the plates much more quickly at a lower cost. Using the Vortek lamp, Native American Technologies also expects to be able to form much thicker materials.

"The engineer designs it and the smart controller will then produce the plate - all without human intervention," said Jerry Jones, chief scientist of Native American Technologies.

The Vortek plasma lamp produces the same power density as the high-powered industrial lasers that Native American Technologies has been using for thermal forming, but over a much larger area.

"This is exactly how industry and government laboratories should work together, developing ways for companies to produce better products at lower cost," Jones said.

While ORNL will be working with industry partners like Native American Technologies, Caterpillar and others, Vortek is focusing on working with the semiconductor industry to improve processing of wafers. The radiant plasma source offers far greater speed and temperature control than is possible with the tungsten halogen lamps widely used in the semiconductor processing industry.

"This allows far more speed in activating the silicon and will allow the industry to make the features smaller," Blue said. "Smaller features translate into faster chips. This is something that's behind the scenes but will make a big difference to the industry and to people buying computers and anything that uses computer chips."

Funding for the project has been provided by DOE and Vortek. The Oak Ridge Y-12 National Security Complex and Oak Ridge Centers for Manufacturing Technology assisted in setting up the user facility at ORNL. ORNL is a multiprogram facility managed by UT-Battelle.