Intro to Spray Processes

Introduction to Thermal Spray Coating Processes

Diversity is the name of the game in this industry. You can make an infinite number of components, from a wide variety of base materials, and impart remarkable properties to them via coatings. There are various methods for applying the coatings

Flame Spray

Flame Spray uses combustible gas as a heat source to melt the coating material. Flame spray guns are available to spray materials in rod, wire, or powder form. Most flame spray guns can be adapted to use several combinations of gases to balance operating cost and coating properties. Acetylene, propane, methyl-acetylene-propadiene (MAPP) gas, and hydrogen, along with oxygen, are commonly used flame spray gases. In general, changing the nozzle and/or air cap is all that is required to adapt the gun to different alloys, wire sizes, or gases. For all practical purposes, the rod and wire guns are similar.

Flame temperatures and characteristics depend on the oxygen-to-fuel gas ratio and pressure. The flame spray process is characterized by low capital investment, high deposition rates and efficiencies, and relative ease of operation and cost of equipment maintenance. In general, as-deposited (or cold spray) flame-sprayed coatings exhibit lower bond strengths, higher heat transmittal to the substrate than most other thermal spray processes. The flame spray process is widely used for the reclamation of worn or out-of-tolerance parts, frequently using nickel-base alloys. Bronze alloys may be used for some bearings and seal areas. Blends of tungsten carbide and nickel-base alloys may be used for wear resistance. Zinc is commonly applied for corrosion resistance on bridges and other structures.

Flame Spray and Fuse

Flame spray and fuse is a modification of the cold spray method. The materials used for coating the self-fluxing (i.e., they contain elements that react with oxygen to oxides to form low-density oxides that float to the surface, thus improving density, bonding, etc. They have relatively low melting points and require postspray heat treatment. In general, these are nickel- or cobalt-base alloys that use boron, phosphorus, or silicon, either singly or in combination, as melting-point depressants and fluxing agents. In practice, parts are prepared and coated as in other thermal spray processes and then fused. There are two variants: Spray and fuse, and spray-fuse. In spray and fuse, the fusion is done after deposition using one of several techniques, such as flame or torch, induction or vacuum, inert, or hydrogen furnaces. In spray-fuse, the deposition and fusion are done simultaneously.

The alloys used generally fuse between 1010 to 1175 °C (1850 to 2150° F), depending on composition. Reducing atmosphere flames should be used to ensure a clean, well-bonded coating. In vacuum and hydrogen furnaces, the coating may have a tendency to wick or run onto adjacent areas. Several stop off materials are commercially available to confine the coating. It is recommended that test parts be coated and fused whenever the shape, coating alloy, or lot of material is changed, to establish the minimum and maximum fusing temperatures. Fusing temperature is known to vary slightly between lots of spray material. On vertical surfaces, coating material may sag or run off if the fusion temperature is exceeded by more than a few degrees. These coatings are fully dense and exhibit metallurgical bonds. Excessive porosity and nonuniform bonding are usually indicative of insufficient heating.

Spray-and-fuse coatings are widely used in applications where excessive wear combined with high stresses on the coating/substrate (shear or impact) are a problem. These alloys generally exhibit good resistance to wear and have been successfully used in the oil industry for sucker rods and in agriculture for plowshares. In many applications, these coatings make possible the use of less expensive substrate materials. Coating harnesses can be as high as 65 HRC. Some powder manufacturers offer these alloys blended with tungsten resistance to wear from abrasion, fretting, and erosion. Grinding is usually necessary for machining a fused coating because of the high hardness. Use of spray-an-fuse coatings is limited to substrate materials that can tolerate the 1010° C (1850 or 2150° F) fusing temperatures. Fusing temperature may alter the heat-treated properties of some alloys. However, the coating will usually withstand additional heat treatment of the substrate. Slower cooling rates may be required to reduce cracking where greater thicknesses are needed or where there is a substantial difference in the thermal expansion coefficients between the coatings and the substrate.

The Electric-Arc (Wire-Arc) Spray Process

The electric-arc (wire-arc) spray process uses metal in wire form. This process differs from the other thermal spray processes in that there is no external heat source such as gas flame or electrically induced plasma. Heating and melting occur when two electrically opposed charged wires, comprising the spray material, are fed together in such a manner that a controlled arc occurs at the intersection. The molten metal on the wire tips is atomized and propelled onto a prepared substrate by a stream of compressed air or other gas.

Electric-Acid Spray

Electric-acid spray offers advantages over flame spray processes. In general, it exhibits higher bond strengths, in excess of 69 MPa (10,000 psi) for some materials. Deposition rates of up to 55 kg/h (120 lb/h) have been achieved for some nickel-base alloys. Substrate heating is lower than in flame spray processes due primarily to the absence of a flame touching the substrate. The electric-arc process is in most instances less expensive to operate than the other processes. Electrical power requirements are low, and, with few exceptions, no expensive gas such as argon is necessary. The electric-arc process most commonly uses relatively ductile, electrically conductive wire about 1.5 (o.60 in) in diameter. Electric-arc spray coatings of carbides, nitrides, and oxides are therefore not currently practical; however, the recent development of cored wires permits the deposition of some composite coatings containing carbides or oxides. By using dissimilar wires, it is possible to deposit pseudo alloys. A less expensive wear surface can be deposited using this technique. One wire, or 50% of the coating matrix, can be an inexpensive filler material.

Electric-are coatings are widely used in high volume, low-cost applications such as application of zinc corrosion-resistant coatings. In a more unusual application, metal-face molds can be made using a fine spray attachment available from some manufacturers. Molds made in this way can duplicate extremely fine details, such as the relief letting on a printed page.

Plasma Spray

A gas, usually argon, but occasionally including nitrogen, hydrogen, or helium, is allowed to flow between a tungsten cathode and a water-cooled copper anode. An electric arc is initiated between the two electrodes using a high frequency discharge and then sustained using dc power. The arc ionizes the gas, creating a high-pressure gas plasma. The resulting increase in gas temperature, which may exceed 30,000°C, in turn increases the volume of the gas and, hence, its pressure and velocity as it exits the nozzle. (Gas velocities, which may supersonic, should not be confused with particle velocities.) Power levels in plasma spray torches are usually in the range of 30 to 80 kW, but they can be as high as 120 kW. Argon is usually chosen as the base gas because it is chemically inert and because of its ionization characteristics. The enthalpy of the gas can be increased by adding the diatomic gases, hydrogen or nitrogen.

Powder is usually introduced into the gas stream either just outside the torch or in the diverging exit region of the nozzle (anode). It is both heated and accelerated by the high-temperature, high-velocity plasma gas stream. Torch design and operating parameters are critical in determining the temperature and velocity achieved by the power particles. The operating parameter includes not only the gas flow, but also the distance from the torch to the substrate (standoff) and the angle of deposition. Standoff is of substantial importance because adequate distance must be provided for heating and accelerating the powder, but too great a distance will allow the powder to cool and lose velocity, because the gas stream is rapidly expanding, cooling and slowing. The size and morphology of powder particles strongly influence their rate of heating and acceleration and, hence, the efficiency of deposition and quality of the coating. Frequently, a somewhat higher price paid for a powder a tighter size deposition is more than compensated for by improved deposition efficiency.

The powder velocities usually achieved in plasma spray deposition range from about 300 to 550 m/s. Temperatures are usually at or slightly above the melting point. Generally, higher particle velocities and temperatures above the melting point, but without excessive superheating, yield coatings with the highest densities and bond strengths. The density of plasma spray coating is usually much higher than that of flame spray coatings and is typically in the range of 80 to 95%of theoretical. Coating thickness usually ranges from about 0.05 to 0.50 mm (0.002 to 0.020 in.) but may be thicker for some applications (e.g., dimensional restoration or thermal barriers). Bond strengths vary from less than 34 MPa (5000 psi) to greater than 69 MPa (5000 psi).

In addition to powder temperature and velocity, a third very important factor is the extent of reaction of the powder particles with process gases or surrounding environmental gases (e.g., air) during the deposition process. With normal plasma spraying in air, the extent of oxidation of the powder particles is a function of the specific torch design, operating parameters, and standoff. Extensive oxidation of metallic and carbide powder can result in drastic reduction in coating density, cohesive strength, and bond strength with concomitant changes in performance. Such oxidation can be virtually eliminated by effective gas shrouding of the effluent or spray in the reduced-resistance, inert gas chamber.

Thermal spray done in an inert atmosphere and/or low-pressure chamber has become a widely accepted proactive, particularly in the aircraft engine industry. Inert-atmosphere, low-pressure plasma spray systems have proven to be an effective means for applying complex, hot corrosion-resistant coating of the Ni-Co-Cr-AlY type to high-temperature aircraft engine components without oxidation of the highly reactive constituents. Simple inert-atmosphere chamber spraying can also be used to confine hazardous materials. Hazardous materials are grouped into two categories: toxic and prosodic. Toxic materials include beryllium and its alloys. Pyrophoric materials included magnesium, titanium, lithium, sodium, and zirconium, which tend burn readily when in a finely divided form or when purified by the plasma process.

A simple inert-atmosphere chamber sprays system may include a jacketed, water-cooled chamber, an air lock, and a plasma system, work piece handling equipment, glove ports, a vacuum pumping system, and an inert gas backfill manifold. Usually, the chamber is pumped down to a pressure of 0.001 to 0.01 Pa (10-4 to 10-5 torr), then backfilled with high-purity dry argon. In any good inert-gas chamber, oxygen level can be easily maintained below 30 ppm. Some l powders tend to “clean up” when sprayed with inert-gas chamber by the reduction of surfaces oxides. By the same mechanism, some oxide powders tend to be partially reduced when sprayed in an inert-gas chamber.

Inert-atmosphere spraying in a low-pressure chamber offers several unique advantages over conventional plasma spraying in an inert atmosphere at atmospheric pressure. Because of the lower pressure, the plasma gas extended to greater distances, so the coating properties are less sensitive to standoff. In addition, the substrate can be preheated without oxidation. This allows better control of residual stress and better bond strengths. Deposition efficiency can be increased because of increased particle dwell time in the longer heating zone of the plasma and higher substrate temperature. The closed system also minimizes environmental problems such as dust and noise.

A typical inert-atmosphere and/or low-pressure require that the spray chamber be pumped down to quite low pressures, as noted above, or be repeatedly cycled after pumping to approximately 55 Pa (0.4 torr) and then be backfilled with inert to about 40 kPa (300 torr). Once the system has been sufficiently purged to achieve an acceptable inert atmosphere, the plasma spray operation is activated and the chamber pressure is adjusted to the desired level for spraying. The entire spray operation is accomplished in a soft vacuum of approximately 6700 Pa (50 torr). The optimum spray conditions exists when the plasma temperature at the substrate approximates the melting point spraying conditions will vary with the chemistry and particle size of each spray material. These variables are similar to those of conventional plasma spraying. Because of the complexity of low-pressure spraying, the entire process is best controlled by computer to ensure complete reproducibility and uniformity thought the coating. Productivity can increase by using load/lock prepumping and venting chambers and robotics.

The complex low-pressure plasma spraying process is not required for all applications. Plasma spray using an inert-gas shroud around the plasma gas effluent can be just as effective in preventing oxidation during deposition as spraying in an inert-gas, low pressure chamber. It has been used extensively to spray NI-Co-Cr-Al-Y alloys on turbine blades, vanes, and outer air seals, and thermal barriers as an undercoat. Compared to chamber spraying, it has much lower capital costs but greater sensitivity to standoff. It is difficult to preheat the substrate, a technique used with low-pressure chamber spray to control he residual stress in some high-temperature, oxidation-resistant coatings. However, residual stress in these coatings can nonetheless be controlled when using inert-gas shrouding through control of deposition rates, auxiliary cooling, and so forth.

Plasma spray can be used to produce coatings of virtually any metallic, cermet, or ceramic material. The coatings are used for most of the types of applications described in a subsequent section.

The transferred plasma-arc process adds to plasma spray the capability of substrate surface heating and melting. A secondary arc current is established through the plasma and substrate that controls surface melting and depth of penetration. Several advantages result from this direct heating: metallurgical bonding, high-density coatings, high deposition rates, and high thickness per pass. Coating thickness of 0.50 to 6.35 mm (0.020 to 0.25 in) and widths up to 32 mm (1.25 in.) can be made in a single pass at powder feed rates of 9 kg/h (20 lb/h). In addition, less electrical power is required than with nontransferred arc processes. For material, plasma spray deposition 0.30mm (0.012 in.) thick and 9.50mm (0.375 in.) in width might require 24 passes at 40 to 60 kW to achieve maximum coating properties. This same material can be applied, using the transferred plasma-arc process, in one pass at approximately 2.5 kW.

The method of heating and heat transfer in the transferred plasma-arc process eliminates many of the problems related to using powders with wide particle size distribution or large particle sizes. Larger-particle-size powders, for example in the 50-mesh range, tend to be less expensive than closely classified 325-mesh powders.

Some limitations of the process should be considered for any potential application. Because substrate heating is part of the process, some alterations of its microstructure are inevitable. Applications are also limited to substrates that are melting. The transferred plasma-arc process is used in hard facing applications such as valve seats, plowshares, oil field components, and mining machinery.

High-Velocity Oxyfuel Fuel

Usually propane, propylene, MAPP, or hydrogen, is mixed with oxygen and burned in a chamber. In other cases, liquid kerosene may be used as a fuel and air as the oxidizer. The products of the combustion are allowed to expand through a nozzle and are heated and accelerated. The powder is usually fully or partially melted and achieves velocities of up to about 555 m/s. Because the powder is exposed to the products of combustion, they may be melted in either an oxidizing or reducing environment, and significant oxidation of metallic and carbides is possible.

With appropriate equipment, operating parameters, and choice of powder, coatings with high density and with bond strengths frequently exceeding69 MPa (10,000 psi) can be achieved. Coating thinness is usually in the range of 0.05 to 0.50 mm (0.002 to 0.020 in), but substantially thicker coatings can occasionally be used when necessary with some materials.

HVOF processes can produce coatings of virtually any metallic or cermet material and, for some HVOF processes, most ceramics. Those few HVOF systems that used acetylene as a fuel are necessary to apply the highest-melting-point ceramics such as zirconia or some carbides. HVOF coatings have primarily been used for wear resistance to date, but their field of applications is expanding.

Detonation Gun

In the detonation gun process, shown schematically inGif.9, a mixture of oxygen and acetylene, along with a pulse of powder, is introduced into a barrel and detonated using a spark. The high-temperature, high-pressure detonation wave moving down the barrel heats the powder particles to their melting points or above and accelerates them to a velocity of about 750m/s. By changing the fuel gas and some other parameters, the Super D-Gun process achieves velocities of about 1000 m/s. This is a cyclic process, and after each detonation the barrel is purged with nitrogen and the process is repeated at up to about 10 times per second. Instead of a continuous swath of coating as in the other thermal spray processes, a circle of coating about 25 mm (1in.) in diameter and a few micrometers thick is deposited with each detonation. A uniform coating thickness on the par is achieved by precisely overlapping the circles of coating in many layers. Typical coating thicknesses are in the range of 0.05 to0.50 mm (0.002 to 0.02 in.), but thinner and much thinker coatings can be used.

The detonation gun coatings have some of the highest bond strengths (usually exceeding the epoxy strength of the test, that is, 69 MPa) and lowest porosities (usually less than 2% when measured metallographically) of the thermal spray coatings. They have been the benchmark against which the other coatings have been measured for years. Careful control of the gases used generally results in little oxidation of metallic or carbides. The extremely high velocities and consequent kinetic energy of the particles in the Super D-Gun process allow most of the coatings to be deposited with residual compressive stress, rather than tensile stress as is typical of most of the other thermal spray coatings. This is particularly important relative to coating thinness limitations and the effect of the coating on the fatigue properties of the substrate.

Virtually all metallic, ceramic, and cermet materials can be deposited using detonation gun deposition. Detonation gun coatings are used extensively for wear and corrosion resistance as well as for many other types of applications. They are frequently specified for the most demanding applications, but often can be also the most economical choice because of their long life.


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