Session 33 – Laser Cutting: Check Material Hazards

The Concise RDWorks Learning Lab Series

Welcome to Module 4 of the new Concise RDWorks Learning Lab Series with Russ Sadler. Module 4 will build on the information learned in the previous modules and will be targeted on the process of laser cutting. Russ will explain the science behind the laser cutting process and go on to demonstrate the techniques needed to consistently achieve great laser cutting results across a variety of materials. So, what do we need to worry about with Laser Cutting material hazards?

In this Session, Russ explains the dangers of engraving a range of materials, especially plastics. The dangers include flammability, particulates and toxic fumes. Effective extraction is a must for all laser cutting and engraving activities. Just because you can laser cut a material, doesn’t mean you should.

Release Date: 25th February 2022

Over the last 6 years, Russ has built up a formidable YouTube following for his RDWorks Learning Lab series which currently has over 200 videos.

The original RDWorks Learning Lab series on his “Sarbar Multimedia” YouTube Channel, follows Russ as he tries to make sense of his new Chinese laser machine and to sort out the truths, half truths and outright misleading information that is available on the web.

Six years later with over 3 million YouTube Views under his belt, Russ has become the go to resource for everything related to the Chinese CO2 laser machine user or wannabe user.

Laser Cutting Hazard: Polycarbonate
Laser Cutting Hazard: Polycarbonate

In this new series, Russ has condensed his knowledge and experience of the last 6 years to provide valuable information and insights into the purchasing, understanding, use, repair and maintenance of the Chinese CO2 laser machines and their key component parts.

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Session 33 – Laser Cutting: Check Material Hazards

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Session 33 – Laser Cutting Material Hazards

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Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards

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The Concise RDWorks Learning Lab with Russ Sadler.

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Session 33- Cutting: Check Material Hazards.

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Well, in today’s session, we’re going to carry on with cutting, but we’re not going to really do any serious cutting today,

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but it is going to be a serious cutting session. Because I’m concerned about your safety.

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One of the biggest problems with cutting a material. And let’s just take a few steps backwards.

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We’re busy shaking molecules remember that are already shaking and warm,

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and we’re going to make them even hotter by making them shake faster with light energy.

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Now, when we shake them faster, I know they heat up,

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but get rid of the heating effect because the real thing you’ve got to concentrate on is this molecular motion.

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If you shake molecules hard enough, they will start to break down into their individual atoms and those individual atoms

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will migrate around and they will form relationships with other atoms that are nearby.

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What materials are they going to add to your cutting process?

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Are they going to be dangerous chemicals or are they going to be safe chemicals?

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That’s the problem. You are dealing with a very, very difficult to manage chemistry set here.

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Shaking molecules can be very dangerous, and that’s what I’m going to introduce you to today.

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Your safety, because before we can cut material safety, you need to understand a little bit about what might be possible,

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how it can damage you and your health and your machine.

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So I will just dive in with a quick example here and say, Look, there is only one safe material to cut on this machine and that water.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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Yeah, I know it’s pretty bloody, useless, but that’s the only safe material.

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You can actually fire the laser at. Everything else that you fire the laser at has got dangers of some sort.

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Now what those dangers are is something that you will have to assess because it’s you standing by the machine.

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It’s you breathing the gas that’s coming off of this stuff, it’s you that’s going to be damaged.

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Now you can go all over the internet and find all sorts of guidance about what materials you can cut,

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what materials you can’t cut, for what reasons, how some overclaim the dangers.

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Some don’t even take into account the dangers at all. Look, I’ve got three pieces of clear material here.

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Let’s take a look at them shall we? They all look exactly the same. I’ve got the machine set to its maximum power and I’ve got a certain speed running,

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which I’m fairly confident will burn through all of these materials.

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Let’s have a look at this first material and see what happens. Note the fumes, note the colour of the smoke.

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Remember what colour is? Colour is what you see reflected off of whatever that smoke is. If it’s white,

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it means all that is being reflected at you.

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If it’s a different colour, well, some of the light energy has been absorbed and only some of the colour is being transmitted to your eye.

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Now that’s a very important thing because it tells you quite a lot about the chemical composition of what’s being sent off of that material.

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You might not be a chemist. You don’t have to be a chemist. What you have to be aware of, is that those colours mean something?

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Sometimes it’s danger. Sometimes you can’t even see the danger because gases are invisible.

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So we’ve got white gas underneath the product.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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Let’s just pop that to one side, and let’s put this one on next.

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And let’s see what this one does. Hmmm, still a whitish gas. Smells pretty horrible, to be honest.

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And it didn’t cut through. It must have cut through a little bit because some of the fumes went underneath, but it didn’t cut through.

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It didn’t cut through cleanly. And before I cut this one.

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I’m going to be sensible and I’m going to put my extractor on. Oh, oh, oh, look at the colour of that.

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The first question is, would you want to breathe it?

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Look what we’ve got down here. Look at the mess that it’s made of that product. It has cut it.

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But look, it’s produced horror, horrible, treacly fumes around the edge burning, and it’s produced all this yellow stuff as well.

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This one has produced. A little hint of yellow fumes, but nothing serious.

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It was mainly white and it has actually popped out.

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But look at the quality of the finish. I mean, OK, so it’s clean, but it’s very, very rough.

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It’s not a good cut. And this one. Well look at it, it’s superb.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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It’s almost got a mirror edge on it and it’s clean.

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So there’s a good example of how three different plastics that look the same are not the same.

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I wouldn’t want to breathe this stuff, even this stuff. Even this stuff, as you can see, it’s got a hint of yellowness about it.

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OK, now and this one is completely clean. I’ve got a small amount of air assist coming through here.

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Air, that we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and the two do not mix together.

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They exist as a mixture, not as a compound in any way.

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They’re not associated with each other and the remaining one percent, most of it is argon.

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There’s a little teeny weeny bit of things like kryptonite. Wow. Kryptonite and hydrogen and helium and some xenon and some neon.

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There’s lots of trace elements that we breathe in. The two major elements of the air that we breathe are oxygen and nitrogen.

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And so when we fire air into our cut.

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We’re adding oxygen and nitrogen into the mix of chemical reaction that’s happening down in the product itself.

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Here is the construction of acrylic, which is this first one that

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we did. Carbon four of them, hydrogen six of them and oxygen two of them. All bonded together in a certain structure.

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Now PET, which is this polyethylene terephthalate.

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Excellent, Terry. Excellent light. OK, so you say tomatoes?

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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and I say tomatoes, and I can’t actually pronounce that at all. Look carbon, hydrogen oxygen, carbon, hydrogen oxygen.

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And then we’ve got this rubbish stuff over here that was absolutely abysmal to cut – polycarbonate,

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which you’re all familiar with. Riot shields, bus shelters, all those sorts of things where you want to be vandal proof.

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Then you use this stuff because it’s almost indestructible.

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Look, carbon hydrogen oxygen still the same basic composition of atoms, but in a different mix.

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And yet they perform completely differently.

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And they also mix with air completely differently as well, because look what we’ve done to these three products.

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This one produced a really horrible yellowy brown gas fumes.

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Now, I would not go near those fumes, and they say that you can cut very, very thin polycarbonate. Well you can cut 3mm polycarbonate.

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But look, it’s absolute rubbish. The thing about brown smoke or yellow smoke is, you know, all you’ve got to do is Google,

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“what produces yellow smoke” and you’ll find the answer is, it’s nitrogen dioxide.

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It’s a very common gas that we produce from engines and cars and things like that in small amounts.

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This is not a small amount. We’re producing huge volumes of it here.

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Although I said to you, nitrogen and oxygen exist together in the air, completely harmlessly because they’re separate.

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When you start heating them up or shaking them so that they decide to break down from one structure and form another structure,

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then hey, that’s a bit of a different situation. The only time that that happens here on Earth is when we get lightning.

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That’s the only time that maybe those two chemicals, oxygen and nitrogen can react with each other.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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So nitrogen dioxide, where on earth does it comes from with these?

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Look, we’ve got no nitrogen in these at all.

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We’ve got some oxygen, but that’s about it.

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The only reason we can ever produce nitrogen dioxide, which is this stuff here NO2, is because somehow the nitrogen in the air,

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when it’s heated up with our lovely little chemical reaction that’s taking place in the product must have bonded with the oxygen.

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Strangely enough, maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t to a smaller amount take place here because this was just a hint of yellow on here.

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I don’t know what the gases that were produced here. It wasn’t as aggressive as the gas that we produced here. This horrible brown yellowish gas.

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So the point being is that oxygen and nitrogen have got an affinity for each other, and they can combine to produce all sorts of chemicals.

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These, particularly these three oxides of nitrogen, which were probably present in this gas here, particularly the NO2. In this one,

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it may well have been some of these other gases as well, a small amount of that and some of these.

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Now these are interesting gases because this one here, NO, which is nitric oxide is a natural product that occurs in our body.

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Men may or may not know about this because lack of nitric oxide in our system produces, hmmm, a dysfunction.

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Let’s put it that way you shouldn’t rush to breathe this stuff to become a stallion because we’ve got these other things in here.

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Now, this one: N2O is nitrous oxide, which you may or may not be aware of is laughing gas.

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It’s used as an anaesthetic, or if you give birth, then it’s a pain relief agent.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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And then this third one here, which is the nitrogen dioxide, which is the brown gas, the main constituent.

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It is a pollutant. It is also toxic. Let me just say that you are 60 percent water.

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If you add water to nitrogen dioxide, you get nitric acid or nitrous acid or both of them.

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Not a good combination.

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If you breathe this gas in, to your watery respiratory tract or it happens to get into your watery eyes, am I making the point clear?

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You have got a very dangerous chemical set here. You need to be very careful how you use it.

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Now, I don’t want to turn this into a chemistry lesson because I’m not a chemist. I don’t really understand what the hell I’m talking about.

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I know enough to make sure that I stay safe, and that’s all I can ask you to do.

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Do research on any plastics in particular that you plan to cut on this machine.

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Acrylic is a fairly benign and safe plastic, it isn’t safe.

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Don’t spend a great deal of time breathing in the fumes. Always have your extractor on, because it comes from the same family.

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Remember as all these other plastic products that I’ve demonstrated to you.

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So there is an element of danger, even with methyl acrylate. But with PVC, there’s a particular danger, and that’s this stuff here, chlorine.

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OK, now here is carbon, hydrogen and chlorine.

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When you heat this up to high temperature, what happens is the chlorine and the hydrogen bond to make hydrogen chloride.

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Now, when you add water to that, which you, remember, your respiratory tract and your eyes.

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You get hydrochloric acid. Again, not something you really want in your body.

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So that’s why I’m just informing you that plastics are a particularly dangerous group of chemicals to cut on this machine or to shake on this machine.

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OK? ABS is another material you don’t want to put anywhere near this machine.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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You can use abs on, for instance,

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a fiber laser at a different wavelength, because the different wavelength has a different effect on the structure of the chemicals.

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It isn’t actually burning the chemical, shaking them to death. It’s only making them a little bit soft and then rearranging them.

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So there are no golden rules for these materials. The golden rules depend on the type of laser that you are using.

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Okay. With a CO2 laser, which is what we’re talking about here, ABS is a definite no no. Acrylonitrile

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Butadiene Styrene is what it stands for, and it’s got a very, very complex structure.

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I’m not going to go into the dangerous chemicals that it will produce,

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but it will produce dangerous chemicals, which you shouldn’t go anywhere near. With this one,

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the hydrogen chloride is not only dangerous to you, it’s also dangerous to all the metal parts in your machine.

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So another good reason for not wanting this product anywhere near your machine.

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Now Urethane is another product, you are going to come across quite a lot?

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But let’s just say, for example, leather belts or maybe some shoe leather.

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It’s not really

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leather is plastic, something they call Pleather and that basically is urethane with some other additives to it that make it look like leather.

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OK. Again, a dangerous material to cut. Go and do your own research.

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I’m not going to tell you the answers to all these questions.

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I’m just going to warn you that plastics are not a safe material to use. Now to make life a little easier for you.

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Um, a lot of this stuff is housed together in one website where you can find never cut these materials,

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and it tells you all about the materials and why you shouldn’t cut them.

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And then you’ve got materials here which you can cut and stuff that you can etch.

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Now you don’t have to believe everything everybody tells you because hey, look 50 years ago,

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they said that this stuff was going to stunt my growth, make me ugly and make my hair fall out.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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Well, they were partially right. I mean, I’m six foot and I still got quite a lot of hair.

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Not every piece of information on here is technically correct.

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The window of the laser cutter is made of polycarbonate because polycarbonate strongly absorbs infrared radiation.

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OK, now what they’re saying is not the window,

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but the cover on your machine may well be made of polycarbonate, because it’s good at absorbing infrared radiation.

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And that is true. As I’ve demonstrated to you in the safety video, I put my glasses in front of the lens.

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These are polycarbonate, and it absorbed the radiation. Nothing went through. That bit is true.

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Then it goes on to say this is the frequency of light. the laser cutter uses. True,

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we are using infrared radiation, so it is very ineffective at cutting polycarbonate.

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The whole principle of laser cutting, we’re sending light energy into the surface, and it is being absorbed,

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which it needs to do and being converted into mechanical vibrational energy within the material itself.

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So this is wrong. It does absorb the infrared radiation, which is what it’s supposed to do.

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But that doesn’t make it difficult to cut. That makes it easy to cut. There’s a lot of information out there.

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Some of it is good. Some of it is a bit dubious because not everybody understands the way in which their laser cutter actually works.

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And what I’ve been trying to educate you guys in, is the basic fundamental elements of how this machine works so that you can work back up.

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Materials that are suitable for cutting; wood, many woods – maximum thickness, quarter inch.

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Well, that’s not true.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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It really depends on the power of your machine, the lens you’re using, and the efficiency or the quality of the beam that you put into the lens.

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Here, it says, avoid oily or resinous woods. Well, yeah unfortunately,

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all woods have oil, and all woods have resin in them, as I demonstrated before.

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Look at the muck that I’ve managed to produce on my machine with tar that comes from wood.

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It’s always there. You will always produce smoke when you’re dealing with wood.

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Certain types of wood can produce very nasty chemicals.

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Remember, this is a chemistry set. Wood is no different to plastic.

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It’s still made of carbon and hydrogen.

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It really depends on the mix of molecules in the wood as to what chemicals you produce, what fumes you will produce.

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So don’t treat any material as being safe, except water.

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I’m just trying to think of the things that you could make with water. Cup of coffee, that’s about it.

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If you do a Google search, which basically says, what materials can I cut with my laser?

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There will be several sites that you come across. One of them will be this one ATX hackerspace.

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Now this is basically the one that I showed you on the machine and this is the best and most reliable one despite a couple of errors.

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But this is the basis of many lists that you see on the internet.

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Now there is another one which I’ve looked at, which is in a strange way.

169
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It’s better, but it’s not better. It really doesn’t tell you a lot, even though it covers a lot more materials.

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List of woods that are safe, safety cut. It’s just non-information in a strange sort of way because look MDF.

171
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Laser power. Medium. Well, I always use high! Speed, low.

172
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Well, it’s as fast as it will go when you’re using high power. May char a lot when cutting.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

173
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No, it doesn’t if you do it properly, it’s not char, it’s colouration of the glue and the wood between them.

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They don’t char, they turn a brown. Contains a lot of glue.

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So avoid fumes. Sorry, you can’t avoid the fumes.

176
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The fumes are part of the product cutting. Do you understand what I mean?

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This is this is fairly meaningless information a lot of this stuff. List of plastics, list of plastics that are safe to cut.

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We’ve already shown that polycarbonate is not what I would call class as a safe material to cut.

179
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I did say that some people say that thin sheet polycarbonate cuts quite well.

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That may be true, but it’s the same chemical reaction that’s got to take place, when you cut polycarbonate.

181
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I don’t consider any polycarbonate as being safe to cut. List of plastics that are safe to cut: Teflon.

182
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No, PTFE is not a good material to cut. It is toxic.

183
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It produces toxic fumes, and it could also have a go at your lens as well.

184
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So why would you put Teflon in a list of plastics that are safe to cut?

185
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I’m puzzled. We’ll go and test a few materials ourselves in the next session when we talk about parameters and materials.

186
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Now this is very confusing because it says list of materials not to laser cut.

187
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I love this look, coniferous wood – uneven grain structure with soft and hard areas.

188
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Hard to find good power setting. Yes. So it’s hard to find a good power setting.

189
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That’s not a reason to not cut it. It’s just that

190
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it’s difficult to cut. Yeah. And then we’ve got this one here, oily and resinous wood – may catch fire.

191
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Well, it’ll only catch fire if you add too much heat in the wrong place and don’t put enough air assist into it.

192
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And then we’ve got hang on. This is true. ABS it makes dangerous cyanide gas true and melts.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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True. Yeah, it’s safe to 3D print, which is not what we’re talking about here.

194
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Yes. You use abs for 3D printing because you’re only melting it.

195
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You’re not burning it. You’re not changing the structure of the material as you are with laser cutting.

196
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PVC emits pure chlorine gas, which ruins the optics.

197
00:22:19,120 –> 00:22:25,360
Well, it can do, but it’s more likely to corrode the metal of the machine and have a go at you. Thick

198
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Polycarbonate cuts poorly and could catch fire. Well, you’ve seen a demonstration of that today. It didn’t catch fire.

199
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It cuts poorly and produces a huge amount of fumes, which could be poisonous, but they don’t mention anything about that there.

200
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So there are two other things that you could check to be safe. One of them is, say, HDPE, H D P E molecule.

201
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And generally, you can get information from Wikipedia, chemical formula many kinds of polyethylene, most having a chemical formula

202
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(C2h4)n. And then the n means it repeats because it’s a long chain.

203
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Okay. Well, C2H4 no oxygen in it. C2 carbon and hydrogen.

204
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So that looks fairly benign. So we then ask a question polyethylene films.

205
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Is polyethylene toxic when burned? So it clearly says here there are only two products that are being produced carbon dioxide and water.

206
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Well, carbon dioxide is not deadly unless you breathe it completely.

207
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Now you can get carbon dioxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon dioxide is a suffocating gas.

208
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You can’t breathe it. It’s not a toxic gas.

209
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It just means that you can’t live on it. So provided you’re extracting the carbon dioxide with a good extraction system,

210
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then the only thing you’re left with is water, and that will probably just evaporate.

211
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And it says there is likely to be some carbon monoxide. You know, which again, is going to get extracted.

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It’s not deadly poisonous to you unless you are subjected to 100 percent carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide atmosphere.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards (Cont…)

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So this is basically the search protocol I go through whenever I want to use a material on my machine.

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I will check it out first and find out what the products of burning are likely to be. By a series of searches like you’ve seen me do here.

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You will eventually get to an answer. My general advice when you look at the internet is, you believe what’s written down.

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If somebody was standing in front of you giving you the same information,

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you would assess that person and say you’re trustworthy or you’re not trustworthy.

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I don’t believe your information or I do believe your information. You don’t have that choice when you read a document.

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So the only way to check out whether there’s credibility in a document is go and verify it in several places.

Transcript for Laser Cutting Material Hazards

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Last updated August 26, 2021

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