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Microwaves drill ceramics

Silent, dust-free drill melts mini-holes in glass and concrete.
18 October 2002

PHILIP BALL

The microwave drill in action.
movie

A microwave drill can bore through materials such as concrete and glass, silently and without creating dust. By heating a target to nearly 2,000 ēC, the microwaves soften it up enough for a small rod to be pushed through.

"It should provide a low-cost solution for a variety of needs," say the drill's inventors Eli Jerby and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University in Israel1. It can make holes between a millimetre and a centimetre wide, and could find use, for example, in the production of ceramic components for cars and planes, in building construction and in geological engineering.

Using heat to cut and drill materials is nothing new. Lasers are already widely used to make incisions or holes as narrow as a thousandth of a millimetre. But laser drilling is too expensive for many routine engineering jobs, whereas the microwave drill costs little more than a mechanical one.

A microwave-drilled hole in alumina.
Š Science/E. Jerby

The drill bit is a needle-like antenna that emits intense microwave radiation. The microwaves create a hot spot around the bit, melting or softening the material so that the bit can be pushed in.

But the drill can't bore through everything effectively. Sapphire's melting point, for instance, is too high. And steel conducts heat too well for a hot spot to develop. But the device works fine on rocks and concrete. In fact, the heat may even strengthen holes' walls in ceramics by welding together the fine grains in the material.

To use the drill, workers would have to be shielded from the intense microwave radiation it produces. The inventors claim that a simple shielding plate put in front of the drill bit is enough to meet common safety standards.

References
  1. Jerby, E., Dikhtyar, V. , Aktushev, O. & Grosglick, U. The microwave drill. Science, 298, 587 - 589, (2002). |Homepage|

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Š Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2002

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