Waterjet Glass Cutting and Piercing

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

Here’s a little demonstration you can carry out. Take a strip of paper, and cut a slit in it half way along the strip and half way through the paper. Now take both ends of the paper in your hands and pull them apart. This causes the cut (the crack) to grow through the paper and gives you two halves. If you do this a second time you should find that by stopping moving your hands you can stop the cut from growing all the way through the paper. Now repeat the process, but use a piece of paper that you have not cut a slot in. The amount of force you need to pull the paper apart is much higher, and I seriously doubt that once you get the tear (crack) to start that you can stop it before it goes all the way through the paper. (Remember this, and I’ll come back to it a bit later in time).

The idea of putting cracks on the edge of packages to lower the force you need to tear them open can be found on the edge of lots of candy bars, packs of peanuts and other goodies in stores. The serrated edge acts as a series of cuts or cracks, that concentrate the force applied when you pull on the edges of the packet so that the package tears at a much lower force, and you can control the tear so that you don’t end up throwing all the contents around the room.

Serrations and tear at the top of a packet of honey

Figure 1. Serrations and tear at the top of a packet of honey

Now at this point you might say that there aren’t any cracks in glass when we start to cut it. If the glass is very new, this is true. However, with all the chemicals in the air and the dust that is carried in the wind the surface actually contains a lot of very fine cracks although glass can look clear.

John Field, one of the earlier investigators of high-pressure waterjet impact, showed this in one of those brilliant yet simple demonstrations that, in this case, he carried out some forty-five-odd years ago. If waterjet impact grows surface cracks and glass acquires surface cracks from damage through being out in the air and if that surface layer is removed, then the underlying glass will have no cracks. So John took a glass slide, and etched off the surface of the lower half of the slide, by immersing it in acid. Then he fired a very high-speed droplet of water at the point on the slide where the acid etch stopped.

Impact of a high-speed droplet of water on glass

Figure 1. Impact of a high-speed droplet of water on glass. Above the dividing line the glass surface contains the micro-cracks and flaws that come with being exposed to the air over time. The lower section below the line has had these flaws removed. As can be seen the cracks only develop in the unetched part of the glass, where they grow pre-existing cracks, even into the side of the glass that was etched. (Field J.E. “Stress Waves, Deformation and Fracture Caused by Liquid Impact,” Phil. Trans. Royal Society, 260A, July 1966, pp. 86 – 93.)

In a single picture he captured the evidence that waterjets work by growing cracks (top half), and that without cracks there is no damage (bottom half). Understanding this opens up a whole vista of different applications, from the removal of soil from around pipelines underground (the new technology of hydro-excavation) to the removal of damaged concrete, while leaving healthy concrete in place (the developed field of hydro-demolition). These and other topics will be part of this series as it moves forward.

But as John showed, not all the cracks a jet will grow can be seen, and as Vanessa found, they don’t have to be at the surface to create problems. One of her early pieces was entitled “p1.” Within it are an uncountable series of holes, drilled deep into the glass.

Detail of the glass sculpture "p1", by Vanessa Cutler

Figure 2. Detail of the glass sculpture “p1″, by Vanessa Cutler

One of the skills Vanessa has learned is in controlling the quality of the pierce and its dimension, but initially, there had to be a period of learning.

Single cracks growing out from partial piercings in a test piece

Figure 3. Single cracks growing out from partial piercings in a test piece during development (Vanessa Cutler)

And so, in the next sequence of posts the simple idea of growing existing cracks will be explored. Mainly, in the beginning, this will focus on cracks that are already there, and how to usefully make them grow. But in some cases we don’t want all those cracks to grow, and that will also come up, as this series continues.