Snow white in the cleaning business

Technology used to put powder on the pistes is helping in the rather less glamorous field of abrasive cleaning `Ice-blasting can strip paint from panels without marring the polish'

Easter is one of the busiest weeks of the year for British ski holiday companies. But if you are about to go, or if you have just come back, spare a thought for the humble snow-making machines that can save an expensive ski holiday from disaster.

In an interesting example of crossover technology, the principle that creates artificial snow is now being put to use in the rather less glamorous field of abrasive cleaning.

The technique of abrasive blast-cleaning has been around for a century or more but has seen few changes since it was first developed. The traditional approach uses high-pressure air to accelerate solid abrasive particles of sand or similar materials to high speeds, which then impact and scour the surface being cleaned.

Unfortunately, this procedure generates large quantities of spent abrasive that contain relatively small quantities of removed coating. It also tends to generate a lot of dust, which can be detrimental to both workers and machinery.

If the coating being removed poses a potential environmental hazard - such as radioactivity - then the blasting site has to be contained, and the residue collected and disposed of at an appointed hazardous waste site. The more waste there is, the more it costs, and industry is now looking for new ways to reduce residual waste.

At Penn State University's Gas Dynamics Laboratory, Dr Gary Settles, professor of mechanical engineering, is looking at new ways of tackling the problem. "In most conventional abrasive blasting operations, about 10 to 15 per cent of the waste is paint or grease and the other 85 to 90 per cent is the abrasive. What we are looking for is an abrasive material which will vaporise or melt."

Water, dry ice, freon, ice and water/ice mixtures have all been tried with varying degrees of success, but, according to Dr Settles, "previous systems were bulky, expensive and didn't work very well. Early attempts at producing an ice-blasting system yielded ice chunks as large as a quarter of an inch."

The problems of trying to clean precision parts with quarter-inch chunks of ice are fairly obvious, and Dr Settles' team has now succeeded in developing a machine in which atomised water is propelled by a stream of compressed air chilled by liquid nitrogen to create a stream of ice particles some three- to four-thousandths of an inch in diameter, moving at up to 500 miles per hour. A nozzle then projects this stream of compressed gas and tiny ice particles against the surface to be cleaned.

All that is required in terms of raw materials are tap water and the addition of a small quantity of Snomax - a cheap and commercially available additive traditionally used in snow-making machines to raise the effective freezing temperature of the airborne water droplets.

"This is rather similar to a snow-making machine, except that ice, rather than snow, is the end product," says Dr Settles.

The beauty of the system is that the ice particles are travelling so fast that they tend simply to sublimate when they hit their target, turning to vapour without going through the liquid phase. The net result is a much smaller amount of solid or liquid waste.

But ice is actually not very hard to begin with, so Dr Settles and his team feel this new technology will be best suited to applications requiring a delicate touch. One example quoted by Dr Settles is that of aircraft "depainting", in which the metallic skin of the aircraft is both thin and expensive to replace. "Conventional cleaning techniques can damage the underlying surface," he says, "but tests have shown that our technology can strip paint from aluminum panels without marring the polish of the surface."

Another area under investigation is that of automotive parts production and reclamation, in which the volatile organic solvents presently used by the industry are coming under increasing scrutiny for their possible effects on the environment during use and disposal.

"Many innocuous materials, including dry ice, starch, baking soda and even ground-up corn cobs have been put forward as candidates to replace the volatile compounds used in degreasing," points out Dr Settles, "but with ice, we have a cheap material that poses little or no disposal problem and no environmental hazard."

At present, there is only a laboratory prototype of this new ice-blasting apparatus, but Dr Settles is confident that this technology will be at least as successful as its "on piste" older sibling.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before