What’s a Plasma Cutter?

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Plasma cutters use high voltage electric arc and compressed gas to cut conductive metals. They create a concentrated arc of plasma that melts a section less than 1/16″ wide and blows it out onto the workpiece. They are lightweight and portable, and can cut up to 2 inches of metal. They prevent warping and paint damage, have a subtle heat affected zone, and cut up to five times faster than traditional torches. However, they require frequent replacement of the electrode and cutter nozzle, cannot cut non-conductive materials, and leave a 4-6 degree bevel on the cut edge.

A plasma cutter is a relatively easy-to-use tool for cutting steel and other electrically conductive metals. These cutters work using a high voltage electric arc and a compressed gas,
usually air. An electric arc generated by an internal electrode ionizes
gas passing through a nozzle, creating a concentrated arc of plasma al
tip of the cutter. Arc contact with work surface produces high heat
circuit that melts a section less than 1/16″ (1.6 mm) wide. The
force of the plasma stream then literally blows out the fused area onto the
workpiece, creating a fairly clean cut with little or no dross. The plasma
the arc travels through the nozzle at a speed of up to 20,000 feet per second,
and at temperatures up to 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit (16,600 degrees Celsius)!

Lightweight, portable plasma cutters use 110 volts with an output of approximately 12-35
amplifiers. To simplify their use, these machines are often equipped with on-board air compressors.
Larger cutters are 220-volt systems with an output between 50 and 80 amps.
Handheld models can be used to cut any conductive metal up to ½ inch thick (1.25cm)
while industrial plasma cutters can cut 2 inches (5cm) of metal.

One of the benefits of using a plasma cutter is that the surface of the
the metal outside the cutting area remains relatively cool; this prevents
warping and paint damage that can occur with other cutters. A
the subtle heat affected zone (HAZ) also allows for the use of precise patterns
curved line cut. Plasma cuts up to five times faster than traditional
torches and does not rely on highly flammable gases. Also many plasma cutters
they work well as gouges and can drill through metal quickly and accurately.

Despite the benefits of plasma cutters, there are some drawbacks. The electrode and cutter nozzle sometimes require frequent replacement which adds to operating costs. Non-conductive materials
such as wood or plastic cannot be cut with plasma cutters. Another small inconvenience is
that the plasma arc typically leaves a 4-6 degree bevel on the cut edge; while this angle is nearly invisible on thinner material, it is noticeable on thicker pieces. Gas torches are
considered better than plasma cutters for heavy gauge steel.

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