Science

A furnace affectionately known as Brittany

Brittany's badge of honour
Tuesday, 18 January, 2011
Bob Beale

Venture into Laboratory 202 of the School of Materials Science and Engineering and you'll encounter a squat metallic machine that must be the only furnace in the world with components that include a Texas Ranger's badge, a car radiator and a beer keg.

Known affectionately as "Britanny", from the name stamped on the metal badge, the furnace was cobbled together in 2006 by resident postdoctoral fellow Kevin Laws, as part of his PhD studies.

Since then, it has served faithfully to melt and cast hundreds of new metal alloys used for research purposes as part of the School's growing expertise and strength in materials science. Brittany exists among many far more sophisticated machines and instruments, yet she not only holds a special place in the School's heart. but continues to serve a valuable purpose.

For his studies, Dr Laws needed a very specific kind of furnace – one for induction melting and injection die-casting of reactive metal bulk metallic glasses based on calcium and magnesium in an argon atmosphere – yet had only very tight budget of just $4,000.

Undeterred, he decided to make one and bought what parts he could then begged, borrowed and scavenged other suitable parts wherever he could find them.  The result was a triumph of ingenuity.

A key donation was the radiator of his own 1979-model car, which became available after an unfortunate automotive mishap. The radiator serves as the heart of the cooling system, along with the metal beer keg – kindly donated by a friend – and a cheap bathroom exhaust fan. From his grandmother's veteran electric kettle he extracted the tungsten heating elements to perform as resistors.

Add in some basic brass hose and irrigation fittings and a custom-made water-cooled stainless steel melting chamber and voila!

Brittany uses a 2.5 kW radio frequency generator and a copper coil to induce a magnetic field to heat a graphite or metallic crucible. The crucible can hold 70 cubic centimetres of molten metal and heat this at a rate of 500 degrees a minute up to a temperature of 1200°C. She is also capable of gravity casting, injection casting and vacuum casting using a novel inverted die-casting method developed here at UNSW by Dr Laws

Apart from holding a Postdoctoral Fellowship, Dr Laws is now Project Manager, ARC Centre of Excellence for Design in Light Metals, and has published more than 30 scientific papers in refereed international journals. He has also co-supervised 10 honours and 6 PhD students. In 2010, he was awaded an invited research position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and this year will take up a similar invited position as Visiting Scientist at US Air Force Research Laboratories in Dayton, Ohio.

Brittany Specifications:

  • Power Supply: 2.5 kW radio frequency generator (valve type) courtesy of Fairfield Electronics;
  • Resistors: tungsten kettle elements (pre-1990’s) courtesy of Dr Laws’s grandmother's kettle;
  • Grid Fuse: 150 watt light bulb;
  • Cooling System: 20-gallon stainless steel beer keg ‘donated’ by Dr Laws’ mate Benny; 1979 Mazda 626 Radiator - ‘donated’ by Dr Laws after an unfortunate automotive mishap; "Bunnings special" bathroom exhaust fan;
  • Custom water-cooled stainless steel melting chamber;
  • Die-casting facility – Geka brass garden hose & irrigation fittings.

Photographs courtesy of Karl Shamlaye, Yang Cao