Lasers are an incredible technology being used in almost every industry for creating the products people use around the world. Laser cleaning is becoming a popular method for removing thin layers of rust and grime on many types of surfaces. Cleaning surfaces with lasers reduces environmental hazards associated with traditional methods like chemical etching and media blasting.
Why choose laser cleaning?
Laser cleaning is a new technology, it is becoming more prevalent with handheld mobile systems. There are many cost, health, safety and environmental benefits to using Laser Cleaning as an alternative to abrasive blasting or chemical cleaning:
Recently, there has been an adaptation in industrial cleaning applications to include a wide range of pulsed laser cleaning or de–coating systems used to remove paint from delicate surfaces, strip insulation from conductors, engrave surfaces by ablation or remove vulcanizing residue from moulds.
The development of laser surface cleaning was influenced by the need for a non–abrasive and non–hazardous cleaning process that is also a suitable substitute for the use of chemicals or abrasive blasting systems. One key problem related to most of the conventional cleaning technologies is the wear of the substrate and the negative environmental impact. Abrasive blasting damages delicate surfaces and creates significant amounts of waste. Using chemical solvents involves liquid waste and potentially hazardous vapors. Such problems led to the development of the first laser systems for this purpose.
From the laboratory to the industrial plant, the benefits of lasers for surface cleaning of organic and inorganic material are attracting new applications daily.
What materials can be laser cleaned?
Common Laser Cleaning Uses for Metal
One of the most common uses of laser solutions is removing rust. This is done to prepare for welding or bonding prep, improve efficiencies, or restore products like historic builds to their former glory. The most common metals that can rust, include:
- Cast Iron
- Wrought Iron
While laser cleaning is an effective means for removing rust, it also works on metals that don’t contain iron but still develop an oxide coating. Oxides can alter the integrity of your product and create a protective layer. While this sounds positive, what’s actually happening is that your product is breaking down, and removing that oxidation layer will expose it to further deterioration. Laser cleaning not only removes that protective layer, but it also removes the contaminant oxides altogether from your product — protecting it from further damage. The most common metals without iron include:
Contaminants such as oxides, grease, mold, and paint can prevent parts from welding or bonding together. This impacts the strength of your product in a big way. Laser cleaning removes even the thickest of contaminants from the surface of your product without impacting the integrity of the substrate — allowing you to secure parts with welding or bonding.
Hazardous Paint Removal
Removing paint can be a long and dangerous process — especially when working with chrome- or lead-based paints. Because laser cleaning uses pulses to absorb and remove contaminants, you can safely remove hazardous paint from your metal applications without creating additional waste or risking the safety of your operators.
Non-metal Products Suited For Laser Cleaning
Just as with cleaning metals, laser ablation for ceramics works by irradiating the surface contaminants with thousands of laser pulses per second. The process is safe for the substrate ceramic layer and creates little waste — which is typically captured by the laser’s built-in suction nozzle.
As with any laser cleaning application, the key to success for ceramic cleaning is a properly calibrated laser solution. You want a laser system that can reach the ablation threshold necessary for cleaning the contaminant layers without damaging the products you’re cleaning. Therefore, choosing a laser with the right power level, settings, optics, and delivery system is critical.
Common Laser Cleaning Use Cases For Ceramics:
- Print rollers
- Ceramic molds
- Historical artifacts
- Baking molds
Cleaning lasers are powerful enough to remove layers of rust from warships, but can also be designed for more gentle cleanings that require great precision — like removing grime and bacteria from natural stone. This includes marble, granite, limestone, concrete, and more. Our laser solutions have been used for extremely delicate projects like restoration of statuary, figures, and ornaments as well as larger surfaces such as building facades.
One of the greatest benefits of using laser ablation for cleaning natural stone is its ability to gently remove contaminant layers without damaging the underlying substrate. In fact, cleaning lasers were used on the Royal Tombs in Egypt to remove thousands of years of residue when even hand-cleaning methods were too abrasive. With mobility, power, and precision, laser cleaning systems can be an effective solution for many stone cleaning projects.
Common laser cleaning use cases for natural stone:
- Restoring stone statuary, ornaments, and other small historical surfaces
- Restoring historic architectural surfaces
- Cleaning stone building facades
- Specialized conservation and restoration
Limited Use Case — plastics
In many cases, laser ablation is not suitable for plastics. This is due to many factors, including the activation potential of the type of plastic in question. However, in certain instances, laser ablation can be used in bonding preparation involving plastic parts. They work by removing any adhesion blockers and the top layer of the plastics. Industrial use has proven the effectiveness of lasers for cleaning fiber-reinforced polyurethane and pre-treatment of CFRP, but they may not be as effective for many other plastics.
Limited use case — rubber
Our partner, cleanLASER has developed a new process for tire manufacturers. Now, our laser cleaning solutions can be automated to clean the inside of the tire for bonding sensors and other materials to it. Since this process requires automation, handheld laser solutions are not suitable for this process.
Materials Not Usually Suitable For Laser Cleaning
While lasers are extremely customizable for many applications, there are some materials that simply aren’t ideal for laser cleaning. These often include:
- Wood: Even finely-tuned lasers with expert operators will have a difficult time consistently cleaning wood surfaces without singing or otherwise damaging the wood sublayer. This is due to the threshold for damage and absorbency of wooden materials.
- Certain glass surfaces: Cleaning glass with lasers is possible but depends on the composition of the glass and a laser system configured especially for those surfaces.
- Some rubber and other elastomerics: Aside from the automated process used for tire manufacturing, our handheld laser solution is not suitable for use on most rubber and elastomeric materials. That’s because cleaning rubber requires extreme precision — something not guaranteed with manual cleaning.
- Many plastics: As previously mentioned, laser cleaning for plastics is completely dependent on the type of plastic in question. The best way to determine if our lasers will work on your plastic products is to test them in our on-site in Kansas City, Missouri.