The plasma arc cutting process cuts metal by melting a section of metal with a constricted arc. A high velocity jet flow of hot ionized gas melts the metal and then removes the molten material to form a kerf. The basic arrangement for a plasma arc cutting torch, similar to the plasma arc welding torch, is shown in figure 10-71. Three variations of the process exist: low current plasma cutting, high current plasma cutting, and cutting with water added. Low current arc cutting, which produces high-quality cuts of thin materials, uses a maximum of 100 amperes and a much smaller torch than the high current version. Modifications of processes and equipment have been developed to permit use of oxygen in the orifice gas to allow efficient cutting of steel. All plasma torches constrict the arc by passing it through an orifice as it travels away from the electrode toward the work piece. As the orifice gas passes through the arc, it is heated rapidly to a high temperature, expands and accelerates as it passes through the constricting orifice. The intensity and velocity of the arc plasma gas are determined by such variables as the type of orifice gas and its entrance pressure, constricting orifice shape and diameter, and the plasma energy density on the work.

Plasma arc cutting torch.


Plasma arc cutting requires a torch, a control unit, a power supply, one or more cutting gases, and a supply of clean cooling water. Equipment is available for both manual and mechanized PAC.

Cutting torch.

A cutting torch consists of an electrode holder which centers the electrode tip with respect to the orifice in the constricting nozzle. The electrode and nozzle are water cooled to prolong their lives. Plasma gas is injected into the torch around the electrode and exits through the nozzle orifice. Nozzles with various orifice diameters are available for each type of torch. Orifice diameter depends on the cutting current; larger diameters are required at higher currents. Nozzle design depends on the type of PAC and the metal being cut. Both single and multiple port nozzles may be used for PAC. Multiple port nozzles have auxiliary gas ports arranged in a circle around the main orifice. All of the arc plasma passes through the main orifice with a high gas flew rate per unit area. These nozzles produce better quality cuts than single port nozzles at equivalent travel speeds. However, cut quality decreases with increasing travel speed. Torch designs for introducing shielding gas or water around the plasma flame are available. PAC torches are similar in appearance to gas tungsten arc welding electrode holders, both manual and machine types. Mechanized PAC torches are mounted on shape cutting machines similar to mechanized oxyfuel gas shape cutting equipment. Cutting may be controlled by photoelectric tracing, numerical control, or computer.


Control consoles for PAC may contain solenoid valves to turn gases and cooling water on and off. They usually have flow meters for the various types of cutting gases used and a water flow switch to stop the operation if cooling water flow falls below a safe limit. Controls for high-power automatic PAC may also contain programming features for up slope and down slope of current and orifice gas flow.

Power sources.

Power sources for PAC are specially designed units with open-circuit voltages in the range of 120 to 400 V. A power source is selected on the basis of the design of PAC torch to be used, the type and thickness of the work metal, and the cutting speed range. Their volt-ampere output characteristic must be the typical drooping type.Heavy cutting requires high open-circuit voltage (400 V) for capability of piercing material as thick as 2 in. (51 mm). Low current, manual cutting equipment uses lower open-circuit voltages (120 to 200 V). Some power sources have the connections necessary to change the open-circuit voltage as required for specific applications.(b) The output current requirements range from about 70 to 1000 A depending on the material, its thickness, and cutting speed. The unit may also contain the pilot arc and high frequency power source circuitry.

Gas selection.

Cutting gas selection depends on the material being cut and the cut surface quality requirements. Most nonferrous metals are cut by using nitrogen, nitrogen-hydrogen mixtures, or argon-hydrogen mixtures. Titanium and zirconium are cut with pure argon because of their susceptibility to embrittlement by reactive gases.Carbon steels are cut by using compressed air (80 percent N2, 20 percent 02) or nitrogen for plasma gas. Nitrogen is used with the water injection method of PAC. Some systems use nitrogen for the plasma forming gas with oxygen injected into the plasma downstream of the electrode. This arrangement prolongs the life of the electrode by not exposing it to oxygen.For some nonferrous cutting with the dual flow system, nitrogen is used for the plasma gas with carbon dioxide (C02) for shielding. For better quality cuts, argon-hydrogen plasma gas and nitrogen shielding are used.

Principles of Operation.

The basic plasma arc cutting circuitry is shown in figure 10-72. The process operates on direct current, straight polarity (dcsp), electrode negative, with a constricted transferred arc. In the transferred arc mode, an arc is struck between the electrode in the torch and the work piece. The arc is initiated by a pilot arc between the electrode and the constricting nozzle. The nozzle is connected to ground (positive) through a current limiting resistor and a pilot arc relay contact. The pilot arc is initiated by a high frequency generator connected to the electrode and nozzle. The welding power supply then maintains this low current arc inside the torch. Ionized orifice gas from the pilot arc is blown through the constricting nozzle orifice. This forms a low resistance path to ignite the main arc between the electrode and the work piece. When the main arc ignites, the pilot arc relay may be opened automatically to avoid unnecessary heating of the constricting nozzle.

Plasma arc cutting circuitry.

Because the plasma constricting nozzle is exposed to the high plasma flare temperatures (estimated at 18,032 to 25,232°F (10,000 to 14,000°C)), the nozzle must be made of water-cooled copper. In addition, the torch should be de-signed to produce a boundary layer of gas between the plasma and the nozzle.

Several process variations are used to improve the PAC quality for particular applications. They are generally applicable to materials in the 1/8 to 1-1/2 in. (3 to 38 mm) thickness range. Auxiliary shielding, in the form of gas or water, is used to improve cutting quality.

Dual flow plasma cutting.

Dual flow plasma cutting provides a secondary gas blanket around the arc plasma, as shown in figure 10-73. The usual orifice gas is nitrogen. The shielding gas is selected for the material to be cut. For mild steel, it may be carbon dioxide (CO2) or air; for stainless steals, CO2; and an argon-hydrogen mixture for aluminum. For mild steel, cutting speeds are slightly faster than with conventional PAC, but the cut quality is not satisfactory for many applications.

Dual flow plasma arc cutting.

Water shield plasma cutting.

This technique is similar to dual flow plasma cutting. Water is used in place of the auxiliary shielding gas. Cut appearance and nozzle life are improved by the use of water in place of gas for auxiliary shielding. Cut squareness and cutting speed are not significantly improved over conventional PAC.

Water injection plasma cutting.

This modification of the PAC process uses a symmetrical impinging water jet near the constricting nozzle orifice to further constrict the plasma flame. The arrangement is shown in figure 10-74. The water jet also shields the plasma from mixing with the surrounding atmosphere. The end of the nozzle can be made of ceramic, which helps to prevent double arcing. The water constricted plasma produces a narrow, sharply defined cut at speeds above those of conventional PAC. Because most of the water leaves the nozzle as a liquid spray, it cools the kerf edge, producing a sharp corner. The kerf is clean. When the orifice gas and water are injected in tangent, the plasma gas swirls as it emerges from the nozzle and water jet. This can produce a high quality perpendicular face on one side of the kerf. The other side of the kerf is beveled. In shape cutting applications, the direction of travel must be selected to produce a perpendicular cut on the part and the bevel cut on the scrap.

Water injection plasma arc cutting.

For high current cutting, the torch is mounted on a mechanical carriage. Automatic shape cutting can be done with the same equipment used for oxygen cutting, if sufficiently high travel speed is attainable. A water spray is used surrounding the plasma to reduce smoke and noise. Work tables containing water which is in contact with the underside of the metal being cut will also reduce noise and smoke.The plasma arc cutting torch can be used in all positions. It can also be used for piercing holes and for gouging. The cutting torch is of special design for cutting and is not used for welding.The metals usually cut with this process are aluminum and stainless steel. The process can also be used for cutting carbon steels, copper alloys, and nickel alloys.Special controls are required to adjust both plasma and secondary gas flow. Torch-cooling water is required and is monitored by pressure or flow switches for torch protection. The cooling system should be self-contained, which includes a circulating pump and a heat exchanger.

Plasma cutting torches will fit torch holders in automatic flame cutting machines.

The amount of gases and tines generated requires the use of local exhaust for proper ventilation. Cutting should be done over a water reservoir so that the particles removed from the cut will fall in the water. This will help reduce the amount of fumes released into the air.


Plasma arc cutting can be used to cut any metal. Most applications are for carbon steel, aluminum, and stainless steel. It can be used for stack cutting, plate beveling, shape cutting, and piercing.


Ear protection must be worn when working with high-powered equipment.

The noise level generated by the high-powered equipment is uncomfortable. The cutter must wear ear protection. The normal protective clothing to protect the cutter from the arc must also be worn. This involves protective clothing, gloves, and helmet. The helmet should be equipped with a shade no. 9 filter glass lens.There are many applications for low-current plasma arc cutting, including the cutting of stainless and aluminum for production and maintenance. Plasma cutting can also be used for stack cutting and it is more efficient than stack cutting with the oxyacetylene torch. Low current plasma gouging can also be used for upgrading castings.