A single digital gas-flow rate control—in other words, a gas valve—can cost a company thousands of dollars. In manufacturing, gas valves are used in welding and cutting applications, where a number of gases are combined as part of the cutting process. Each added gas means adding another valve. So from the companies’ perspective, a reduction in the cost of a gas valve would be financially beneficial. At Penn State Altoona Chris Martin, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Todd Batzel, professor of electrical engineering, are working to develop a less costly alternative.
In cutting high-alloy metals, Martin explains, “complicated gas blends are essential for getting a good-quality weld, a good-quality cut.” Those gas blends are used “in defense industries or any industry where you need to cut something other than plain old carbon steel. The problem is you pay a lot more for it.” It may seem obvious but “in a nutshell the goal is to control the flow of gas cheaply. Getting the right proportions are very important. So that’s the challenge. What’s needed is an inexpensive valve that can control gas flow rate from a digital signal.”
Martin says the “old school way”— using a throttle body—does not meet present-day and future needs. “Various gas industries and the manufacturing sector have made continuous iterative improvements on technologies for mixing gases, but the fundamental underlying approach has not changed for a half century. As a result, mixed welding and cutting gases are only rarely adjustable, and digitally controlled mixtures are almost unheard of, despite a preponderance of studies detailing the potential benefits.”
Batzel and Martin are working to develop what they believe will be the solution: a switched nozzle valve with “a single metering orifice that we machine precisely,” Martin says. “We switch it on and off very quickly. When the valve is open I know what the flow rate is.” In addition to improving the valve itself, the project has another objective: “Old gas mixers had big reservoirs. One of the goals of this project is to eliminate the reservoir.”
Through the Fund for Innovation, a program of Invent Penn State for Commonwealth campuses, Martin and Batzel were awarded the first one-year Commercialization Grant to develop their prototype valve “as a part of a patent process,” Martin says. The end goal is to connect with an industrial partner, thereby opening the opportunity for commercial development of a research project, which keeps Martin very busy beyond creating the valve prototype. “I’ve gone through the patent process with companies before but I really do wear a lot of hats. I have to design my activities around this project and assume that this could vanish at any moment. You never know when funding is going to dry up or that your contacts aren’t going to pan out.”
For now, though, the future looks quite positive. “This novel approach to metering the flow of gases is uniquely suited to the digital control demanded by ‘industry 4.0,’” Martin says. That look to the future is in part what attracted James Delattre, director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization at University Park, which provided the grant, to the project. Delattre says, “Penn State is committed to fostering technology development and bringing research to the marketplace through the transfer of technologies to existing and start-up companies. The interdisciplinary team and applicability to Industry 4.0 make this a very exciting project from my perspective.”
This project has potential even beyond manufacturing; in health care, for example, some patients might require a customized air mixture that these valves could provide, Martin says. But for now, the focus is on mixing gases and the work goes on. At least three prototypes should be completed “in a couple of weeks,” he notes. “Right now students are building a precision gas flow rate calibration device called a bell prover to validate the individual valves. A separate team is building a custom laser system that we will use this summer to validate a prototype gas mixer.”
And in the end it all comes down to the right mix—not just of gases in valves but of valves and the company that can utilize it. Martin and Batzel are doing their best to make that happen.
—Therese Boyd, ’79