Welding arcs are used as a concentrated source of high temperature heat that can be moved and manipulated to melt the base metal and filler metal to produce welds.

Types of Welding Arcs

There are two basic types of welding arcs. One uses the non-consumable electrode and the other uses the consumable electrode.

The non-consumable electrode does not melt in the arc and filler metal is not carried across the arc stream. The welding processes that use the non-consumable electrode arc are carbon arc welding, gas tungsten arc welding, and plasma arc welding. The consumable electrode melts in the arc and is carried across the arc in a stream to become the deposited filler metal. The welding processes that use the consumable electrode arc are shielded metal arc welding, gas metal arc welding, flux-cored arc welding, and submerged arc welding.

Function of Welding Arcs

 The main function of welding arcs is to produce heat. At the same time, they produces bright light, noise, and, in a special case, bombardment that removes surface films from the base metal. A welding arc is a sustained electrical discharge through a high conducting plasma. It produces sufficient thermal energy which is useful for joining metals by fusion. The welding arc is a steady-state condition maintained at the gap between an electrode and work piece that can carry current ranging from as low as 5 amperes to as high as 2000 amperes and a voltage as low as 10 volts to the highest voltages used on large plasma units. The welding arc is somewhat different from other electrical arcs since it has a point-to-plane geometric configuration, the point being the arcing end of the electrode and the plane being the arcing area of the workpiece. Whether the electrode is positive or negative, the arc is restricted at the electrode and spreads out toward the work piece.

The length of the arc is proportional to the voltage across the arc. If the arc length is increased beyond a certain point, the arc will suddenly go out. This means that there is a certain current necessary to sustain an arc of different lengths. If a higher current is used, a longer arc can be maintained.

The arc column is normally round in cross section and is made up of an inner core of plasma and an outer flame. The plasma carries most of the current. The plasma of a high-current arc can reach a temperature of 5000 to 50,000° Kelvin. The outer flame of the arc is much cooler and tends to keep the plasma in the center. The temperature and the diameter of the central plasma depend on the amount of current passing through the arc, the shielding atmosphere, and the electrode size and type.

The curve of an arc, shown by figure 10-14, takes on a nonlinear form which in one area has a negative slope. The arc voltage increases slightly as the current increases. This is true except for the very low-current arc which has a higher arc voltage. This is because the low-current plasma has a fairly small cross-sectional area, and as the current increases the cross section of the plasma increases and the resistance is reduced. The conductivity of the arc increases at a greater rate than simple proportionality to current.

Welding arc characteristics : volt, amp curve.

 The arc is maintained when electrons are emitted or evaporated from the surface of the negative pole (cathode) and flow across a region of hot electrically charged gas to the positive pole (anode), where they are absorbed. Cathode and anode are electrical terms for the negative and positive poles. Welding arc action can best be explained by considering the dc tungsten electrode arc in an inert gas atmosphere as shown by figure 10-15. On the left, the tungsten arc is connected for direct current electrode negative (DCEN). When the arc is started, the electrode becomes hot and emits electrons. The emitted electrons are attracted to the positive pole, travel through the arc gap, and raise the temperature of the argon shielding gas atoms by colliding with them. The collisions of electrons with atoms and molecules produce thermal ionization of some of the atoms of the shielding gas. The positively charged gaseous atoms are attracted to the negative electrode where their kinetic (motion) energy is converted to heat. This heat keeps the tungsten electrode hot enough for electron emission. Emission of electrons from the surface of the tungsten cathode is known as thermionic emission. Positive ions also cross the arc. They travel from the positive pole, or the work, to the negative pole, or the electrode. Positive ions are much heavier than the electrons, but help carry the current flow of the relatively low voltage welding arc. The largest portion of the current flow, approximately 99 percent, is via electron flow rather than through the flow of positive ions. The continuous feeding of electrons into the welding circuit from the power source accounts for the continuing balance between electrons and ions in the arc. The electrons colliding with the work create the intense localized heat which provides melting and deep penetration of the base metals.

DC Tungsten arc.

In the dc tungsten to base metal arc in an inert gas atmosphere, the maximum heat occurs at the positive pole (anode). When the electrode is positive (anode) and the work is negative (cathode), as shown by figure 10-15, the electrons flow from the work to the electrode where they create intense heat. The electrode tends to overheat. A larger electrode with more heat-absorbing capacity is used for DCEP (dcsp) than for DCEN (dcrp) for the same welding current. In addition, since less heat is generated at the work, the penetration is not so great. One result of DCEP welding is the cleaning effect on the base metal adjacent to the arc area. This appears as an etched surface and is known as catholic etching. It results from positive ion bombardment. This positive ion bombardment also occurs during the reverse polarity half-cycle when using alternating current for welding.  Constriction occurs in a plasma arc torch by making the arc pass through a small hole in a water-cooled copper nozzle. It is a characteristic of the arc that the more it is cooled the hotter it gets; however, it requires a higher voltage. By flowing additional gas through the small hole, the arc is further constricted and a high velocity, high temperature gas jet or plasma emerges. This plasma is used for welding, cutting, and metal spraying.

 The arc length or gap between the electrode and the work can be divided into three regions: a central region, a region adjacent to the electrode, and a region adjacent to the work. At the end regions, the cooling effect of the electrode and the work causes a rapid drop in potential. These two regions are known as the anode and cathode drop, according to the direction of current flow. The length of the central region or arc column represents 99 percent of the arc length and is linear with respect to arc voltage.

Figure 10-16 shows the distribution of heat in the arc, which varies in these three regions. In the central region, a circular magnetic field surrounds the arc. This field, produced by the current flow, tends to constrict the plasma and is known as the magnetic pinch effect. The constriction causes high pressures in the arc plasma and extremely high velocities. This, in turn, produces a plasma jet. The speed of the plasma jet approaches sonic speed.

 The cathode drop is the electrical connection between the arc column and the negative pole (cathode). There is a relatively large temperature and potential drop at this point. The electrons are emitted by the cathode and given to the arc column at this point. The stability of an arc depends on the smoothness of the flow of electrons at this point. Tungsten and carbon provide thermic emissions, since both are good emitters of electrons. They have high melting temperatures, are practically non-consumable, and are therefore used for welding electrodes. Since tungsten has the highest melting point of any metal, it is preferred.(12) The anode drop occurs at the other end of the arc and is the electrical connection between the positive pole (anode) and the arc column. The temperature changes from that of the arc column to that of the anode, which is considerably lower. The reduction in temperature occurs because there are fewer ions in this region. The heat liberated at the anode and at the cathode is greater than that from the arc column.


Carbon Arc. In the carbon arc, a stable dc arc is obtained when the carbon is negative. In this condition, about 1/3 of the heat occurs at the negative pole (cathode), or the electrode, and about 2/3 of the heat occurs at the positive pole (anode), or the work piece.

Consumable Electrode Welding Arcs. In consumable electrode welding arcs, the electrode is melted and molten metal is carried across the arc. A uniform arc length is maintained between the electrode and the base metal by feeding the electrode into the arc as fast as it melts. The arc atmosphere has a great effect on the polarity of maximum heat. In shielded metal arc welding, the arc atmosphere depends on the composition of the coating on the electrode. Usually the maximum heat occurs at the negative pole (cathode). When straight polarity welding with an E6012 electrode, the electrode is the negative pole (DCEN) and the melt-off rate is high. Penetration is minimum. When reverse polarity welding with an E6010 electrode (DCEP), the maximum heat still occurs at the negative pole (cathode), but this is now the base metal, which provides deep penetration. This is shown by figure 10-17. With a bare steel electrode on steel, the polarity of maximum heat is the positive pole (anode). Bare electrodes are operated on straight polarity (DCEN) so that maximum heat is at the base metal (anode) to ensure enough penetration. When coated electrodes are operated on ac, the same amount of heat is produced on each polarity of the arc.

DC shielded metal arc.

 Welding Electrode Arc Forces

The forces that cause metal to transfer across the arc are similar for all the consumable electrode arc welding processes. The type of metal transfer dictates the usefulness of the welding process. It affects the welding position that can be used, the depth of weld penetration, the stability of the welding pool, the surface contour of the weld, and the amount of spatter loss. The metal being transferred ranges from small droplets, smaller than the diameter of the electrode, to droplets larger in diameter than the electrode. The type of transfer depends on the current density, the polarity of the electrode, the arc atmosphere, the electrode size, and the electrode composition. Several forces affect the transfer of liquid metal across an arc. These are surface tension, the plasma jet, gravity in flat position welding, and electromagnetic force. Surface tension of a liquid causes the surface of the liquid to contract to the smallest possible area. This tension tends to hold the liquid drops on the end of a melting electrode without regard to welding position. This force works against the transfer of metal across the arc and helps keep molten metal in the weld pool when welding in the overhead position.  The welding arc is constricted at the electrode and spreads or flares out at the work piece. The current density and the arc temperature are the highest where the arc is most constricted, at the end of the electrode. An arc operating in a gaseous atmosphere contains a plasma jet which flows along the center of the arc column between the electrode and the base metal. Molten metal drops in the process of detachment from the end of the electrode, or in flight, are accelerated towards the work piece by the plasma jet.

 Earth gravity detaches the liquid drop when the electrode is pointed downward and is a restraining force when the electrode is pointing upward. Gravity has a noticeable effect only at low currents. The difference between the mass of the molten metal droplet and the mass of the workpiece has a gravitational effect which tends to pull the droplet to the workpiece. An arc between two electrodes will not deposit metal on either.

Electromagnetic force also helps transfer metal across the arc. When the welding current flows through the electrode, a magnetic field is set up around it. The electromagnetic force acts on the liquid metal drop when it is about to detach from the electrode. As the metal melts, the cross-sectional area of the electrode changes at the molten tip. The electromagnetic force depends upon whether the cross section is increasing or decreasing. There are two ways in which the electromagnetic force acts to detach a drop at the tip of the electrode. When a drop is larger in diameter than the electrode and the electrode is positive (DCEP), the magnetic force tends to detach the drop. When there is a constriction or necking down which occurs when the drop is about to detach, the magnetic force acts away from the point of constriction in both directions. The drop that has started to separate will be given a push which increases the rate of separation. Figure 10-18 illustrates these two points. Magnetic force also sets up a pressure within the liquid drop. The maximum pressure is radial to the axis of the electrode and at high currents causes the drop to lengthen. It gives the drop stiffness and causes it to project in line with the electrode regardless of the welding position.

DC consumable welding electrode arc.