NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center developed the handheld laser torch, designed for welding and brazing metals, to repair hard-to-reach Space Shuttle engine nozzles. It incorporates various manual controls and changing lenses to allow the operator to adjust the laser’s power output in real time. The controls and lenses are designed to increase precision, portability, and maneuverability as compared to existing automated lasers and traditional welding techniques such as tungsten inert gas (TIG), metal inert gas (MIG), or gas-tungsten arc welding (GTAW) systems. Proximity sensors with automated shut-off switches also ensure a high level of safety for the user.
Features of the handheld torch’s design allow the user to adjust the laser depending on circumstantial needs, resulting in a torch that is well suited for in-field repairs of metals where space and time are constrained. The primary applications are likely to be in-field welding and brazing of damaged specialized equipment where traditional welding systems cannot easily access the welding area.
The laser technology is a variable-power, continuous-wave, handheld fiber laser torch for brazing metals with an increased precision and maneuverability. The laser hardware and supply measures 24 inches in length, 15 inches wide, and 30 inches high, with a torch diameter of about 0.8 inches. This size is nearly half that of traditional welding systems, which increases the portability of the machine as well as the welder’s maneuverability.
The current handheld torch replaces earlier versions of handheld torches that cost over $700k to produce, with a large footprint over 60. After numerous design improvements and the inclusion of a commercial off-the-shelf fiber laser, the third-generation NASA torch has a much smaller footprint, with the handheld component being about 2.5 times larger than standard ink pens. The NASA handheld torch and system integration is estimated to cost between $60k and $70k.
NASA has used the handheld laser on Haynes 230 super alloy to improve localized repair procedures. Preliminary tests produced a consistent data set of yield strength (YS), ultimate tensile strength (UTS), and percent elongation (%EL) that are comparable to the results of current GTAW techniques.
Potential applications include aerospace engine repair, medical hardware manufacturing, plastic mold and die restoration, and jewelry manufacturing and repair.