Abrasive sizing

By Dr. David A. Summers, Curators’ Professor at Missouri University of Science & Technology

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

KMT Waterjet Systems Weekly Waterjet Blog

Over the past 30 years, abrasive waterjet cutting has become an increasingly useful tool for cutting a wide range of materials of varying thickness and strength. However, as the range of applications for the tool has grown, so the requirements for improved performance have also risen. Before being able to make a better quality cut, there had to be a better understanding of how abrasive waterjet cutting works so that the improvements could be made.

Parameters controlling AWJ

Figure 1. Some factors that affect the cutting performance of an abrasive waterjet (Hashish, Mohamed, “The effect of pressure on performance of Abrasive-Waterjet (AWJ) Machining”, Proceedings of Manufacturing International, April, 1988, Atlanta, GA, pp 255 – 263)

This understanding has not been easy to develop since there are many different factors that all affect how well the cutting process takes place. Consider, first of all, the process of getting the abrasive up to the fastest speed possible. And for the purpose of discussion, I am going to use a “generic” mixing chamber and focusing tube nozzle for the following discussion.

Simplified nozzle design

Figure 2. Simplified sketch of a mixing chamber and focusing tube nozzle used in adding abrasive to a high pressure waterjet

As high-pressure water flows through the small orifice (which in the sketch was historically made of sapphire), it enters a larger mixing chamber and creates a suction that will pull abrasive into the mixing chamber through the side passage. That side passage is connected through a tube to a form of abrasive feed mechanism that I will not discuss in detail today.

However, the abrasive does not flow into the mixing chamber by itself. Rather it is transported into the mixing chamber using a fluid carrier. In the some of the earliest models of abrasive waterjet systems, water was used as the carrier fluid to bring the abrasive into the mixing chamber. This, as a general rule, turned out to be a mistake.

The problem is that, within the mixing chamber, the energy that comes into the chamber with the high-pressure water has to mix not only with the abrasive but also with the fluid that carried the abrasive into the chamber. Water is heavier than air, and so if water is the carrier fluid, then it will absorb more of the energy that is available with the result that there is less for the abrasive, which – as a result – does not move as quickly and therefore does not cut as well. The principle was first discussed by John Griffiths at the 2nd U.S. Waterjet Conference, although he was discussing abrasive use in cleaning at the time.

Wet v dry feed

Figure 3. Difference in performance of water acting to carry the abrasive to the mixing chamber (wet feed) in contrast with the use of air as the carrier fluid. (Griffiths, J.J., “Abrasive Injection Usage in the United Kingdom,” 2nd U.S. Waterjet Conference, May, 1983, Rolla, MO, pp. 423 – 432.)

Note that this is not the same as directly mixing the abrasive into the waterjet stream under pressure – abrasive slurry jetting – which I will discuss in later posts.

The difference between the two ways of bringing the abrasive to the mixing chamber is clear enough that almost from the beginning, only air has been considered as the carrier to bring the abrasive into the mixing chamber. However, there is the question as to how much air is enough, how much abrasive should be added and how effectively the mixing process takes place.

In the earlier developments, the equipment available restricted the range of pressures and flow rates at which the high pressure water could be supplied, and these limits bounded early work on the subject.

One early observation, however, was that the size of the abrasive that was being fed into the mixing chamber was not the average size of the abrasive after cutting was over. (At that time steel was not normally used as a cutting abrasive). Because the fracture of the abrasive into smaller pieces might mean that the cutting process became less effective, Greg Galecki and Marian Mazurkiewicz began to measure particle sizes at different points in the process. (Galecki, G., Mazurkiewicz, M., Jordan, R., “Abrasive Grain Disintegration Effect During Jet Injection,” International Water Jet Symposium,Beijing, China, September, 1987, pp. 4-71 – 4-77.)

For example, by firing the abrasive-laden jet along the axis of a larger plastic tube (here opened to show the construction) the abrasive would, after leaving the nozzle, decelerate and settle into the bottom of the tube, without further break-up and without damage to the tube. Among other results, this allowed a measure of how fast the particles leave the nozzle, since the faster they were moving, the further they would carry down the pipe.

Green tube test

Figure 4. Test to examine particle size and travel distance, after leaving the AWJ nozzle at the left of the picture. The containing tube has divisions every foot, and small holes over blue containers, so that the amount caught in every foot could be collected and measured.

For one particular test, the abrasive going into the system was carefully screened to lie in the size range between 170 and 210 microns. It was then fed into a 30,000 psi waterjet at a feed rate of 0.6 lb/minute. The particles were captured after passing through the mixing chamber but before they could cut anything by using the tube shown in Figure 4. The size of the particles was then measured and plotted as a cumulative percentage adding the percentages found at each sieve size over the range to the 210 micron size of the starting particles.

After mixing sizing

Figure 5. Average size of particles after passing through a mixing chamber and exiting into a capture tube without further damaging impact

The horizontal line shows the point where 50% of the abrasive (by weight) had accumulated, and the vertical line shows that this is at a particle size of 140 microns. Thus, just in the mixing process alone, energy is lost in mixing the very fast moving water with the initially much slower moving abrasive.

And, as an aside, this is where the proper choice of abrasive becomes an important part of an effective cutting operation because the distribution of the curve shown in figure 5 will change with abrasive type, size, concentration added as well as the pressure and flow rate of the nozzle through which the water enters the mixing chamber.

I will have more to discuss on this in the next post but will leave you with the following result. After we had run the tests which I just mentioned, we collected the abrasive in the different size ranges. Then we used those different size ranges to see how well the abrasive cut. This was one of the results that we found.

Effect of particle size

Figure 6. The effect of the size of the feed particles into the abrasive cutting system on the depth of cut which the AWJ achieved

You will note that down to a size of around 100 microns the particle size did not make any significant difference, but that once the particle size falls below that range, then the cutting performance degrades considerably. (And if you go back to figure 5, you will note that about 30% of the abrasive fell into that size range, after the jet had left the mixing chamber).