Testing Steel Alloys While They're Still In The Furnace

To make high-quality alloys, steelmakers test each batch by drawing a sample of molten metal, then taking it to the plant's lab. There the sample has to be heated in a vacuum chamber so the vapors can be analyzed. At Pennsylvania's Lehigh University, Professor Yong Kim has patented a method for testing molten metal directly inside the furnace.

The LPP (laser-produced plasma) Sensor Probe unit fires a laser beam into the molten metal, causing some to vaporize. A computer then analyzes the plasma's spectrum to determine the alloy's composition. All this takes less than a minute, compared with up to 10 minutes for the conventional test.

By reducing waste and cutting the time molten metal must be heated in the furnace, the new process could save the industry as much as $200 million a year. The Lehigh project is funded partly by the federal government and an industry consortium that includes the American Iron & Steel Institute. Initially, the apparatus should cost between $300,000 and $1 million, depending on the size of the plant.

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