DIY Thermic Lance Kit - Cut Steel With Burning Iron

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Introduction: DIY Thermic Lance Kit - Cut Steel With Burning Iron

About: I like turning boring things into awesome things! Usually on video.

I came up with this project in an effort to replicate industrially made thermic lances in a small, mobile form factor. In this way I can throw them easily in the toolbox of my truck for use on road trips or on the trail in case of emergency. Their use commercially is usually for demolition purposes as they have the ability to cut through incredible thicknesses of steel. Both because of the extreme heat they produce as well as their ability to oxidize and burn whatever material they are cutting, in addition to the simple melting action that would be provided by a torch.

The video I have embedded above will provide the clearest demonstration of the lance kit I have created, but I will also include some written descriptions in the following pages.

Step 1: Principles of Combustion

The function by which a thermic lance works is the rapid oxidation of iron into Fe2O3, iron oxide (rust). The same reaction occurs when steel wool is ignited and spun on a wire, creating a large amount of sparks as molten iron is thrown into the air. In that case the steel is able to oxidize quickly enough to sustain a combustion reaction because it has been very finely divided into strands, creating a large amount of surface area to react with atmospheric air. A thermic lance has far less surface area so it requires a much higher concentration of oxygen to sustain combustion.

Step 2: Materials

Industrial thermic lances would usually use the oxygen supply from large cylinders made for oxy-acetylene torches, but the purpose of my kit is to be portable. For that reason I have chosen to use disposable oxygen bottles. These bottles are equipped with a reverse thread, made so to prevent someone from threading them into a torch or fitting not made for use with oxygen. To attach to these cylinders I purchased a fitting made to adapt them to a 1/4" hose output. These usually are used for certain aspects of homebrewing, so they may be available locally at a well equipped brewing supply store. I purchased mine on ebay.

A length of 1/4" vinyl tube is also necessary, and can be connected directly to the hose barb on the tank fitting.

The lances themselves are simply a 5/16" diameter automotive brake line, approximately 2-3 feet in length. I purchase them in longer lengths then necessary, then cut them in half to get two lances for a better value.

Step 3: Construction

Whether or not the brake line used for this project is purchased as a double length and cut in half, at least one end will need to be cut off to remove the flare. This will allow the line to fit snugly inside the 1/4" vinyl tube on the oxygen fitting.

Igniting a steel brake line is a difficult task, even with the assistance of pure oxygen. A commercially made thermic lance would typically require a secondary oxy-acetylene torch in order to produce a flame hot enough to get the reaction started. For my lances I realized that fine 0000 grade steel wool with the assistance of a pure oxygen supply would burn more than hot enough to get the job done. A small portion of wool is inserted into the open end of the lance to prepare it for use.

Step 4: Ignition and Use

The steel wool that has been inserted into the end of the line can be easily ignited with the standard flame from a lighter. If the oxygen supply is slowly turned on while the wool burns it quickly increases in temperature, enough so that the end of the brake line is able to catch fire itself. At this point so long as the oxygen is flowing the lance will burn from the end, allowing it to cut through whatever material it is directed against.

I have found this design to work very well. The primary concern is for safety, as using a vinyl tube to carry oxygen poses a very real risk of the tube catching fire, whether by a leak or a wayward droplet of molten iron. For that reason it is important to wear full safety gear, including welding gloves and mask. An oxygen rich flame has the ability to burn through any organic material quite quickly, even leather, so that can pose other risks. No one should attempt working with thermic lances of any kind without previous experience and training using oxygen supplied cutting methods.

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    119 Discussions

    Are there any known alternatives to breakline that we can use? Copper pipe?

    I like your idea. My Dad has done a lot of welding & cutting in his time, he used to tell me that if someone does a lot of underwater cutting it can make your bones turn like chalk - not really sure what he meant. You can buy arc air gouging carbons (copper coated carbon rods) quite cheap. I think the gouging torch is the same, it uses oxygen and a DC welder. I remember seeing it being done once, its super loud and really, really messy - molten metal spraying everywhere.

    Anyway, awesome idea.. :D

    2 replies

    I think your father may have been referring to a condition which can affect any diver who spends considerable time under pressure. The condition is called osteonecrosis which is similar to osteoporosis but is where the bones actually decay & die. Bone rot is a slang name some divers use. It has nothing to do with welding underwater, but is a result of prolonged exposure to high pressures while underwater. It mainly affects professional divers who spend long amounts of time working in these conditions.

    Not oxygen just compressed air and a plasma torch is much better these days

    What he means is probably bone necrosis but that can happen with any kind of diving.

    looks SUPER Cool but for some reason the video is restricted for me :(

    howdy, you have a very impressive arsenal of innovative instructables!!! I was impressed with your thermal-lance... and others. As I too have in the past stumbled upon this characteristic of steel, while I was at my experimenting with a gas&hair torch at my engineering firm. I also felt compelled to publish an instructable, my first ;) I thought this may interest you? I'm sure you have seen it before as there are many on the web. Keep up the excellent work!!!! I G

    1 reply

    im an iron worker and i need to cut some 1" rebar thats embedded in very thick concrete. researching thermal lances. your video was very informative!! very awesome. thanks!

    I think you are bang on the money in regards to Thermic lance's basic construction , it's great to have some 1 to break down the DIY process , let's just call it a ( After Market Design ) especially for someone who is just starting out in engineering and needs to spend as little as possible for tools , well done.
    If I can add my 2 cents worth from an engineers point of view .
    Would a 12 v battery be good for the ignition process rather than a lighter?
    Secondly how about making up a manifold for the disposable oxygen bottles right up to the point of running brass tubing instead of a vinyl hose and you could gang up 3-4 disposable oxy bottles incase of having a lengthy cut.
    I may be wrong but I thought of a couple of suggestions that may work.
    PS , did you trial run it I'm interested to know what was the th of material you were able to lance?
    Regards Steven

    Very interesting method. I was wondering how to cut and shape profiles on railroad track when converting to an anvil design, this promises an economical solution, so thanks for posting it.

    5 replies

    question,did you ever work out the fastest way to cut RR track?..a recently closed down rail line has discarded some lengths of track,in a fairly remote area..Heavy as you know they are,it is NOT practical to move the entire length (impossible is closer to being accurate).so ..no juice can be run,counting out transporting a gen.cutting torch or other such complications due to its remoteness ..any suggestions would be helpful..i considered a Thermite concoction and its still looking like the closest ,quickest and effective manner..then again,working out the proper amount of thermite to cut this much (very hard steel) is another problem altogether ...wouldnt want to have to travel out twice and put together 2 cutting mixes...anyway..Thank you

    I work on the railways, in maintenance and work with the welders/track crew constantly.

    To cut rail, they use demolition saws with a cutting disc (think of a huge angle grinder, with a cut off wheel and that's basically what it is) but they use a jig to attach the saw to the rail whilst they're cutting it. In that configuration, even though they're actually demolition saws, they're known as 'rail saws'.

    Eg: http://www.trak-star.com/products/rail_saw/K1260Rail.jpg

    Alternatively, if they don't need a neat cut, they'll get out the oxy acetylene torch and blow through the steel.

    Thermite is, in my observation anyway, only used when welding a new section in, and isn't used for cutting rail. Given the temps it gets to it might be doable, but, personally, I wouldn't. There's too much potential for things to go really, really wrong

    No I did not, but I'd advise you to leave it alone, it is a Federal offense to remove or otherwise acquire railroad track without a bunch of documentation to accompany it, even scrap yards will turn you away without it. Long story short, no track section is ever "abandoned" in the eyes of the (U.S.) law, this goes back to the days of the old west when locals would appropriate some lengths for personal use- you can imagine the danger when a train expects there to be track where the is none, highballing along at night and then...

    Just use a 9" [230mm] friction cutting disc in an angle grinder and remember that if the railroad track has had lots of heavily-loaded trains pass over it then the manganese in the track will have work-hardened. Try to get some new/er rail track if you can because it'll be a lot softer and easier to cut through and shape etc.

    I was wondering about the wisdom of using a vinyl tube for the oxygen supply. Is there something better out there?