Induction heating is a non-contact heating process. It uses high frequency electricity to heat materials that are electrically conductive. Since it is non-contact, the heating process does not contaminate the material being heated. It is also very efficient since the heat is actually generated inside the workpiece. This can be contrasted with other heating methods where heat is generated in a flame or heating element, which is then applied to the workpiece. For these reasons Induction Heating lends itself to some unique applications in industry.
How does Induction Heating work ?
A source of high frequency electricity is used to drive a large alternating current through a coil. This coil is known as the work coil. See the picture opposite.
The passage of current through this coil generates a very intense and rapidly changing magnetic field in the space within the work coil. The workpiece to be heated is placed within this intense alternating magnetic field.
Depending on the nature of the workpiece material, a number of things happen…
The alternating magnetic field induces a current flow in the conductive workpiece. The arrangement of the work coil and the workpiece can be thought of as an electrical transformer. The work coil is like the primary where electrical energy is fed in, and the workpiece is like a single turn secondary that is short-circuited. This causes tremendous currents to flow through the workpiece. These are known as eddy currents.
In addition to this, the high frequency used in induction heating applications gives rise to a phenomenon called skin effect. This skin effect forces the alternating current to flow in a thin layer towards the surface of the workpiece. The skin effect increases the effective resistance of the metal to the passage of the large current. Therefore it greatly increases the heating effect caused by the current induced in the workpiece.
(Although the heating due to eddy currents is desirable in this application, it is interesting to note that transformer manufacturers go to great lengths to avoid this phenomenon in their transformers. Laminated transformer cores, powdered iron cores and ferrites are all used to prevent eddy currents from flowing inside transformer cores. Inside a transformer the passage of eddy currents is highly undesirable because it causes heating of the magnetic core and represents power that is wasted.)
And for Ferrous metals ?
For ferrous metals like iron and some types of steel, there is an additional heating mechanism that takes place at the same time as the eddy currents mentioned above. The intense alternating magnetic field inside the work coil repeatedly magnetises and de-magnetises the iron crystals. This rapid flipping of the magnetic domains causes considerable friction and heating inside the material. Heating due to this mechanism is known as Hysteresis loss, and is greatest for materials that have a large area inside their B-H curve. This can be a large contributing factor to the heat generated during induction heating, but only takes place inside ferrous materials. For this reason ferrous materials lend themselves more easily to heating by induction than non-ferrous materials.
It is interesting to note that steel looses its magnetic properties when heated above approximately 700°C. This temperature is known as the Curie temperature. This means that above 700°C there can be no heating of the material due to hysteresis losses. Any further heating of the material must be due to induced eddy currents alone. This makes heating steel above 700°C more of a challenge for the induction heating systems. The fact that copper and Aluminium are both non-magnetic and very good electrical conductors, can also make these materials a challenge to heat efficiently. (We will see that the best course of action for these materials is to up the frequency to exaggerate losses due to the skin effect.)
What is Induction Heating used for ?
Induction heating can be used for any application where we want to heat an electrically conductive material in a clean, efficient and controlled manner.
One of the most common applications is for sealing the anti-tamper seals that are stuck to the top of medicine and drinks bottles. A foil seal coated with “hot-melt glue” is inserted into the plastic cap and screwed onto the top of each bottle during manufacture. These foil seals are then rapidly heated as the bottles pass under an induction heater on the production line. The heat generated melts the glue and seals the foil onto the top of the bottle. When the cap is removed, the foil remains providing an airtight seal and preventing any tampering or contamination of the bottle’s contents until the customer pierces the foil.
Another common application is “getter firing” to remove contamination from evacuated tubes such as TV picture tubes, vacuum tubes, and various gas discharge lamps. A ring of conductive material called a “getter” is placed inside the evacuated glass vessel. Since induction heating is a non-contact process it can be used to heat the getter that is already sealed inside a vessel. An induction work coil is located close to the getter on the outside of the vacuum tube and the AC source is turned on. Within seconds of starting the induction heater, the getter is heated white hot, and chemicals in its coating react with any gasses in the vacuum. The result is that the getter absorbs any last remaining traces of gas inside the vacuum tube and increases the purity of the vacuum.
Yet another common application for induction heating is a process called Zone purification used in the semiconductor manufacturing industry. This is a process in which silicon is purified by means of a moving zone of molten material. An Internet Search is sure to turn up more details on this process that I know little about.
Other applications include melting, welding and brazing or metals. Induction cooking hobs and rice cookers. Metal hardening of ammunition, gear teeth, saw blades and drive shafts, etc are also common applications because the induction process heats the surface of the metal very rapidly. Therefore it can be used for surface hardening, and hardening of localised areas of metallic parts by “outrunning” the thermal conduction of heat deeper into the part or to surrounding areas. The non contact nature of induction heating also means that it can be used to heat materials in analytical applications without risk of contaminating the specimen. Similiarly, metal medical instruments may be sterilised by heating them to high temperatures whilst they are still sealed inside a known sterile environment, in order to kill germs.