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A 'seeing-eye' smart tool to monitor VAR vital signs

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Arc sensor technology quietly developed by former Department of Energy scientists in Oregon could dramatically improve safety, quality and efficiency in specialty metals production, company principals claim.

In recent years, Corvallis, Ore. -based Ampere Scientific has developed an Arc Position Sensing (APS) technology that allows manufacturers to visualize electric arcs within vacuum arc remelting (VAR) furnaces.

High-end melters, VARs produce specialty metal ingots, formed of materials as diverse as titanium, zirconium, and nickel alloys, which eventually find their way into applications ranging from aerospace to medical devices.

Previously, operators actually positioned video cameras at key points around the furnace and eyed video feeds all day to monitor and catch safety snafus, detected from the spillover of internal light, Paul Turner, senior sales manager for Ampere Scientific and a material scientist by training, explained. That’s hardly the best use of people’s time, he pointed out.

The conventional approach doesn’t guarantee full-time safety or capture real-time data for future use, company executives told AMM in a telephone interview conducted last month.

“With video cameras, somebody had to watch them all the time, and obviously that can get kind of boring after a while,” Turner observed. “Our VAR metric system has alarms built in, both visual and audible...It’s really helpful to the operator.”

Ampere’s platform, when added to a VAR furnace, helps an operator “see” the arc’s movement. The system works off the same principles as those used in medical Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Paul King, Ampere’s chief executive officer, pointed out.

A 3-D image of the melt profile focused tightly on the electrode gap opens up a complete view of the cleanliness and quality of any given melt, he noted.

“The importance to the industry is threefold: better quality ingots, more efficiency, and safer operation,” King said.

Ampere targets an eight-percent increase in melt efficiency, which can equate to $2 million in annual savings per furnace, in the form of reduced electrical costs alone. For a shop operating ten furnaces, multiply that figure tenfold, and that’s just on a per-year basis, King said.

The technology is already commercialized and is now in its second generation, with partners including Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI). The specialty metals producer uses the system at its Millersburg, Ore.-based ATI Specialty Alloys and Components unit.

King described ATI as an “early adopter” of the technology, noting that the Pittsburgh-based metals producer still supports further development “through experimentation and access to data.”

ATI’s Oregon facilities offer Ampere the built-in benefit of being local, so that King and other Ampere researchers can take a short drive to the plant, and ask operators to trial different configurations, with quick access to results, he said.

In terms of wider adoption, Ampere has already reached out to major metals producers that could be interested in the technology. Large, publically-held companies in the sector include Carpenter Technology Corp. and Precision Castparts Corp. (PCC), including its Titanium Metals Corp. (Timet) subsidiary, King told AMM.

“We’ve talked to pretty much all the majors in the U.S.,” about our Ampere sensor system, King said. Marketing began in earnest in January 2017.

“We’re actively marketing the technology,” he added, noting that the company is hitting the conference circuit–including serving as conference speakers–in addition to attending large industry meetings such as the International Titanium Association’s annual conference.

Although the overall system has already been implemented on actual production lines, improvements to the basic technology continue apace, King noted. One key research milestone Ampere hopes to perfect within three years – if not sooner–is integrating solidification modeling and defect tracking into the VAR-metric system.

That’s increasingly important, King emphasized, pointing out that uncontained jet engine failures – which made headlines three times last year – attract regulatory and public attention.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are “fully engaged” in tracing the causes of these failures, which sometimes result in emergency landings of passenger flights, he said.

Ampere’s system is relevant in such a context, because the VAR-metric system can, in principle, predict the probability of solidification defects on the surface of components made from bar and other metal material. In fact, a VAR-melted bar defect accounted for an airplane crash in 1989, King noted.

As the FAA conducts deliberations on these uncontained engine failures, Amphere has been active and has reached out to the regulatory body to insure that it is is aware of the company’s technology.

“We’ve been educating the FAA about our technology and how it can enhance sourcing melting information from ingot production,” he told AMM.

The other key safety aspect of Ampere’s platform is the prevention of side arcing, which can lead to “catastrophic explosions” of furnaces, Amphere has said previously. Side arcing occurs when an arc, or plasma column, forms between the electrode and furnace side walls, instead of between electrodes and the ingot, as intended.

The ultimate danger arises if and when the arc bores a hole through the copper crucible, allowing water and moisture to enter the vacuum chamber, King explained. The resultant “explosive environment” can be disastrous with a reactive metal like titanium, damaging equipment, buildings, personnel and the surrounding area, he said.

Funds fuel innovation

Ampere’s technology has won recognition, both in the form of industry awards and recent grants. The company has invested about $1 million to date in the technology with funding coming from investors, an industry consortium, public grants, and sales revenue, chiefly.

Fine arc control and positioning, for example, is the subject and ultimate goal of a National Science Foundation (NSF) $225,000 grant won in January 2017. The phase-one grant allows for follow-on funding of $750,000, in the form of a potential phase-two award, and $500,000 in further matching funds.

That NSF grant is the latest in a series of funding grants that the six-man Ampere team has won in recent years, including a $150,000 investment from state clean tech accelerator Oregon BEST, awarded in October 2015.

The only metals company among Oregon BEST’s investment portfolio, which counts some 40-plus companies, Ampere enjoys a unique relationship with the state of Oregon, partly because VAR furnaces were developed there in the 1940s.

One aspect of Ampere’s technology that attracted Oregon BEST’s attention was the “massive energy savings” the VAR-metric system promised, Ken Vaughn, director of commercialization programs for BEST, noted.

The “energy-hungry arc remelting process” could potentially benefit from fewer melting cycles, a “key attraction” for Oregon BEST, when it first selected Ampere as an investment, Vaughn told AMM via email.

The clean-tech nonprofit also cited the history of Ampere’s technology, which was first developed at a national Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory, as providing “nearly instant credibility”.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) pedigree combined with obvious market demand, plus early recognition by strategic partners, gave Ampere an edge, Vaughn explained. Researchers had already demonstrated proof-of-concept at NETL, he noted.

In fact, as it turns out, King and Turner actually met at DOE labs, where Turner supervised a young King for some 20 years, the two told AMM. That lab focused on material science, including metallurgy, and actually founded vacuum arc remelting and electroslag remelting in the U.S. in the 1940s. The government lab boasts a long and storied history, and deep ties with industry.

It was only natural then that the Specialty Metals Processing Consortium, an industry group, approached that lab in 2009, with $150,000 in funds, to develop the core technology, King recalled., That early step eventually evolved into Ampere’s platform, he said.

Although initial patents were issued years ago, the technology remained essentially dormant from 2011 to June of 2014, when King began working to commercialize the technology.

At the moment, that effort is focused on North America with plans to take the technology global not a top priority, King indicated. Selling heavily abroad is “not part of our active strategy right now,” he told AMM.

Ampere has, however, requested export licenses from the U.S. Commerce Department. The company is now partnering with a furnace manufacturer that does export furnaces abroad.

Before the VAR-metric technology exits U.S. shores as an integral part of a new furnace, however, Ampere must work through a number of integration-related issues. The system, as currently configured, is an add-on module, designed to be either retrofitted to an old furnace or sold as a new component for a new furnace, without being built into the unit itself.

Ampere’s purpose for now is “driving American competitiveness,” King said succinctly.

The VAR process has remained unchanged, technology-wise, for some 40 years, since video monitoring and drip-short controls were introduced in the 1980s, Ampere’s principals pointed out.

“Since then, there’s been no substantive change,” King noted. But with Ampere, 3-D, real-time, and granular data through the chain of custody, ingot by ingot tracking, has become reality, Turner said.


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