Zapping corrosion with lasers may seem like far-fetched science fiction, but it's a new game-changing approach that's rapidly gaining acceptance in the real world of technology. Some of the most promising applications of this revolutionary cleaning method are in manufacturing plants and medical labs, as well as the automotive, aviation and steel fabrication industries.
Significantly different from traditional cleaning
Industrial Laser Solutions reported that laser ablation has a number of advantages over conventional cleaning methods. For example, unlike abrasive blasting systems, which can produce significant waste and damage delicate surfaces, precision-controlled lasers allow the rust or scale to vaporize without any damage to underlying material. Plus, they produce minimal waste and are more environmentally friendly.
And, compared to chemical solvents, lasers do not produce potentially hazardous vapors and liquid waste products. The corrosion, dust and coating particles are typically captured by a vacuum for cheap, easy disposal – there are no contaminated chemicals or media to worry about.
General Lasertronics Corporation adds that the same laser can be used to remove both corrosion and paint. The unmatched accuracy of lasers allows selective, layer-by-layer removal. Plus, laser cleaning can be used on extremely delicate materials such as composites, fiberglass, plastic, glass or rubber.
How laser cleaning is being employed by industry
General Lasertronics noted that the aviation industry is one field where laser cleaning is quite helpful. Since there is no physical, structural or chemical change, the FAA has approved the process for stripping paint off delicate aircraft skins. The laser energy is completely absorbed in the surface layer of paint or corrosion.
The steel fabrication industry is another one to benefit from lasers used for surface profiling and rust removal. According to Industrial Laser Solutions, lasers are replacing physical methods such as blasting, polishing, scraping devices, extra blows and wire brushes, as well as chemical methods such as alkali descaling and acid descaling. Surface profiling and preparation involves removal of contaminants like oil, grease, scale and shop primer from the surface of steel parts, which laser cleaning can accomplish more cost-effectively.
Laser cleaning can also be used for anode assembly cleaning in the aluminum smelting industry, adhesive bonding preparation for metals, pretreatment for brazing and welding, partial decoating and selective paint removal.
In the automobile and aviation industries, in particular, it's sometimes necessary to remove a top layer while preserving the primer, especially in the case of weathered coatings on vehicles. Since the top layer is chemically different from the primer underneath, the laser can be set to a frequency that only removes the top layer of paint.
Even the military is finding lasers useful. The Defense Visual Information Distribution Service reported that an ablative cleaning laser is being used for corrosion control at an Air Force base in Guam.
An article by the 36th Wing Public Affairs Office at Andersen Air Force Base quoted TSgt Michael Fossler, 36th Maintenance Squadron Fabrication flight chief, saying, "The cost and time-saving benefits paired with the benefit of it being environmentally friendly make this tool a huge asset to our corrosion control unit here at Andersen, especially given that Guam is a more corrosive environment than most other Air Force bases."