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This article presents detailed information about ultrasonic cleaning. Read further to learn more about:
What is Ultrasonic Cleaning? How Does It Work?
Parts of an Ultrasonic Cleaning Machine
Types of Ultrasonic Cleaning Machines
And much more...
Chapter 1: What is Ultrasonic Cleaning?
Ultrasonic cleaning is a type of cleaning process which uses cavitation induced by alternating compression and rarefaction cycles at ultrasonic frequencies. Ultrasonic frequencies are sound waves vibrating at 20 kHz or higher. In this process, the part is immersed in a tank filled with a formulation of cleaning solution. Cleaning solution concentration, tank temperature, and immersion time are carefully controlled to produce the necessary cleaning effect. The cavitation causes small but powerful agitations between the debris and the surface of the part. This method effectively cleans all surfaces that the cleaning fluid can reach.
Cavitation is a phenomenon where tiny bubbles or voids are formed in a liquid due to a rapid decrease in pressure. These voids are then instantaneously imploded by the rapid increase in pressure. Collapsing these voids impart cyclic stresses that erode surfaces due to repeated implosions. Instantaneous cavitations are called inertial or transient cavitation. This type can erode surfaces and is one of the main problems in operating pumps since it rapidly decreases the life of the equipment.
Lower-energy acoustic oscillations create voids that do not implode but pulsate about an equilibrium radius. These are known as non-inertial or stable cavitation. Sometimes, lower energy cavitation is enough to overcome particle-to-substrate adhesion forces.
Acoustic oscillations are simply alternating and repeating high- and low-pressure waves. High pressure results in compression, while low pressure results in rarefaction. The low-pressure period creates voids from the sudden vaporization of the liquid. In the second half of the cycle, the high-pressure period occurs, which compresses or contracts the void. These voids are microscopic in scale and cannot be seen during operation, but these are high-energy localized regions that can have temperatures of up to 5,000 K and pressures of 500 atm. Imploding voids can have microscopic jet velocities of around 300 m/s.
It is important to note that the amplitude of the sound waves alone does not determine which type of cavitation can occur. There is no exact mathematical equation to describe its generation. The process can be affected by parameters such as medium composition, solute concentration, and temperature. A combination of inertial and non-inertial cavitation can exist throughout the cleaning process.
Chapter 2: Parts of an Ultrasonic Cleaning Machine
An ultrasonic cleaner can be divided into two main parts. First are the components that generate the acoustic waves, and second are the components that hold the liquid and the parts to be cleaned. This applies to all ultrasonic cleaners, regardless of type, form, function, and application. Below are the major components of an ultrasonic cleaning machine.
An ultrasonic transducer converts a form of energy, usually electrical or mechanical, into an ultrasonic vibration. The two main types of ultrasonic transducers used for cleaning are piezoelectric and magnetostrictive. These transducers use special materials that create minuscule changes in their geometry, usually in the order of 10-6 m/m, upon application of electricity or a magnetic field.
Piezoelectric Ultrasonic Transducers: This type of transducer converts alternating electrical current (AC) directly to mechanical energy from the phenomenon known as the inverse-piezoelectric effect. Piezoelectricity happens when materials release electrical energy when stressed. The opposite effect, inverse piezoelectricity, is used for ultrasonic transducers where the application of an electric field to a piezoelectric material causes changes to the electric charge carriers in the material‘s crystal structure. The realignment of these charge carriers results in the elongation or contraction of the crystal. Popular piezoelectric materials used are lead zirconate titanate (PZT) and barium titanate.
The main advantage of using piezoelectric transducers is their energy efficiency. This is due to the direct conversion of electrical energy into mechanical energy. Energy losses from this conversion, typically of around 5%, only result from internal friction and heat. Thus, 95% of the power from the generator is delivered to the tank and utilized for cleaning. The overall efficiency of ultrasonic cleaning machines using piezoelectric transducers is around 70%.
On the other hand, there are downsides to using this type of transducer since they are negatively affected by aging and are less reliable. The performance of piezoelectric materials decreases over time. This is due to the depolarization of the charge carriers in the crystal, which causes a significant reduction in its strain characteristics. However, pre-aging the material can predict and counter this effect since degradation tends to slow down over time.
In addition, the reliability of these transducers is lower because the transducers can only be mounted through adhesives. The epoxy bond can become fatigued by cyclic loading over time and eventually loosen. Nevertheless, developments in the design of epoxy mountings of piezoelectric transducers are more reliable and guaranteed to last for ten years. These workarounds on the mentioned disadvantages make piezoelectric transducers more popular than magnetostrictive.
Magnetostrictive Ultrasonic Transducers: Magnetostrictive transducers operate on the principle of magnetostriction. Magnetostriction is the phenomenon in which a ferromagnetic material changes its dimension when a magnetic field is applied. When an external magnetic field is introduced to the material, its magnetic domains change their orientation and realign to the applied magnetic field. This effect allows the direct conversion of electromagnetic energy into mechanical energy. Nickel is a widely used material for ultrasonic cleaning.
The upsides of using magnetostrictive transducers over piezoelectric are its reliability and resistance to degradation over time. Magnetostrictive transducers can be mounted by braze-bonding, which cannot easily loosen, in contrast to epoxy bonds used in piezoelectric transducers. Epoxy bonds also create a damping effect which decreases the amplitude of the applied acoustic wave. Regarding its stability, ferromagnetism is a material‘s inherent property that does not decay over time.
As discussed earlier, this type of transducer has lesser efficiency. One reason is that two energy transformation steps are involved: electrical to magnetic, then magnetic to mechanical. In magnetic systems, 50% of the energy is lost due to the heating of the coils and the effects of hysteresis. Magnetostrictive transducers have an overall efficiency of about 30 to 40%.
The ultrasonic generator is the main component of an ultrasonic cleaner. This part receives power and converts it into a suitable form for energizing the transducer at the desired frequency. The standard electrical frequency of power utility systems is 50 and 60 Hz. Since ultrasonic frequencies range from 20 kHz and above, the power supply frequency must be changed to the appropriate range which depends on the type of contaminant to be removed and the mechanical strength of the part. Lower ultrasonic frequencies tend to form larger cavitation bubbles that produce more powerful oscillations and implosions suited for stronger, more durable parts. Higher frequencies are desired for cleaning small, delicate parts such as semiconductors and jewelry.
Some generators are only able to provide a fixed frequency, while others can provide sweeping frequencies. Since multiple transducers deliver ultrasound to the tank, an array of fixed frequency transducers creates hot spots and dead zones that produce variations in the cavitation. Hot spots tend to have higher cavitation activity, which can erode surfaces of delicate parts. Dead zones, on the other hand, are areas where no cavitation is created. To solve these problems, sweep frequency generators are used. In sweep frequency generators, the delivered frequency on the transducer array fluctuates from a center frequency which is the average frequency used. The variation from the center frequency is called the sweep bandwidth. By varying the frequency, hot spots and dead zones are constantly moved. Thus, there is no particular location for hot spots and dead zones, eliminating the problem.
Feedback systems are used to maintain the center frequency of the wave. Cleaning parts with different weights and geometries produces different interactions with the acoustic waves. With a sweeping system, the feedback system detects changes in the load in the generator. The generated frequency is changed accordingly, enabling the output to be optimum at all times.
Cleaning Solution and Workpiece Tank
The tank contains the cleaning solution and the part to be cleaned. This is also where the transducers are mounted, usually at the sides or bottom of the tank. The tank must be durable enough to resist erosion from ultrasonic cavitation and must be corrosion-resistant to withstand chemical attacks from the cleaning solution. That being said, ultrasonic tanks are usually manufactured entirely from stainless steel. Common surface finishings applied to tanks are to prevent erosion include electropolishing to reduce surface roughness and titanium nitride (TiN) coating deposited by physical vapor deposition (PVD).
Workpiece Strainer or Basket
Most ultrasonic machines are designed to operate with the part placed at or near the center of the tank. However, since the parts are usually denser than the fluid, they sink to the bottom of the tank. Contact with the tank walls affects the delivered waves, making the frequency lower and the cleaning less effective. Moreover, high vibrations can cause damage, particularly for delicate parts with tiny assemblies. Baskets are usually made of stainless steel mesh.
Heat is supplied by heating elements integrated into the tank assembly. Heat must be high enough to promote an increased cavitation, cavitation intensity, and chemical solution cleaning ability but low enough to prevent degrading any special compounds added to the cleaner.
Different factors can affect the cleaning quality of the machine. These can be factors that affect the ultrasonic cavitation produced or the dissolution, emulsion, and reaction of the contaminants with the liquid. Below are the major factors to consider.
Cleaning Solution Properties
The cleaning solution not only acts as the medium where the ultrasonic wave propagates but also influences the amount and size of the cavitation bubbles produced. Therefore, the cleaning solution's properties significant affect the cavitation induced. There are a few parameters involved which are:
Vapor Pressure: In fluid machinery, particularly pumps, the vapor pressure of the fluid is important as it directly affects the susceptibility of cavitation within the pump. Cavitation is formed when the pressure of the liquid falls below its vapor pressure. Thus, liquids with higher vapor pressure can easily develop cavitation since less effort is needed to go below the point of vaporization point. This means less power is required. However, since less power is required to form the bubble, less energy is absorbed and less energy will be released. Therefore, liquids with moderate vapor pressure are desired.
Surface Tension: Like vapor pressure, surface tension affects the formation of cavitation bubbles. High surface tension means more force is required to break the cohesive forces between the liquid molecules; thus, more energy is required to produce cavitation. Still, high surface tension is necessary to store large amounts of energy in the bubble. Moreover, surface tension affects the "wetness" of the solution. Making the solution "wetter" means better coverage of small areas on the surface of the part.
Viscosity: Viscosity is the property of the liquid to resist deformation. Higher viscosity means higher energy is required to shear the liquid. Ultrasonic waves cannot easily propagate in viscous liquids. Moreover, oscillations and implosion of cavitation bubbles are damped due to internal friction. Lower viscosity is desired as it enhances wave transmission and cavitation activity.
Liquid Density: Having a higher density means more mass is available for a given volume. Liquids with higher densities allow more energy to be stored. However, more energy is also needed to initiate cavitation. Thus, the liquid density must not be too high or too low.
Temperature affects the amount and intensity of cavitation by modifying the properties of the cleaning solution. The temperature has a direct effect on the properties of the liquid. Increasing the temperature increases vapor pressure increases while surface tension, viscosity, and density decrease. High vapor pressure and low surface tension, viscosity, and density tend to create more cavitation activity.
Temperature not only increases the effect of cavitation but the cleaning solution's effectiveness as well. Usually, higher temperature results in more chemical activity. Higher temperatures also promote better mass transport. This means debris, oils, and other contaminants removed from the part are easily dispersed and dissolved.
Chemicals are added to improve cleaning efficiency by modifying the cleaning liquid‘s properties to facilitate better cavitation. Aside from ultrasonic cavitation, chemicals are also used to help in dissolve and separate contaminants removed from the part. These may be present in the ultrasonic bath or the succeeding rinsing stages. Water is used as the general solvent for ultrasonic cleaning applications since it is cheap, readily available, and has the right range of properties under ambient temperatures. Chemicals such as alkaline detergents, acidic solutions, enzymes, and other special chemicals are added to modify its properties and include additional functions.
Presence of Dissolved Gas
Dissolved gasses decrease cavitation intensity by acting as a cushion during the bubble implosion. During the negative pressure phase, voids are formed from the vaporization of the liquid. When dissolved gasses are present in the liquid, they migrate and diffuse into the bubble. As the positive pressure phase occurs, the vaporized liquid and the dissolved gasses that migrate into the bubble are compressed. The collection of these dissolved gasses into the bubble prevents the void from collapsing. The resulting cavitation is only oscillating bubbles that have lesser intensity.
It is important to degas the liquid first. This is done by operating the cleaner without load. Dissolved gasses that are collected make the bubble larger, become more buoyant, and eventually rise to the surface of the liquid. Once no more rising bubbles are observed, the liquid is ready for operation.
Certain frequency range performs better in specific applications than other frequencies. There is no specific frequency that fits all applications. A general rule would be lower frequencies tend to produce greater cavitation, while higher frequencies produce less intense but finer cavitation. Low frequencies are not effective at removing microscopic particles. Surfaces have tiny troughs where particles can lodge into. Below are some of the frequency ranges used and their application.
20 – 40 kHz: This is for general cleaning purposes; used in cleaning large and bulky materials
60 – 80 kHz: This range is effective in removing microscopic particles without causing damage to the part. Typically used in cleaning semiconductors, disc drives, watches, and other precision parts.
100 kHz and higher: High frequencies, including in the Megasonic (1 MHz), have gentler cavitation activity that is suited for cleaning silicon wafers.
The power delivered into the tank must be sufficient to create cavitation. Typical ultrasonic generator power density is 100 W per gallon. Liquid volume and power density have an inverse relationship with each other. As the volume is increased, the required power density decreases, which usually bottoms at a specific value depending on the design of the system.
Chapter 4: Types of Ultrasonic Cleaning Machines
This chapter discussed different types of cleaning machines according to form and construction. These machines can operate at different frequency ranges and can use different cleaning solutions. Below are the three main types.
Single-tank Ultrasonic Cleaners: Single-tank ultrasonic cleaners are standalone machines suitable for cleaning small to medium-sized parts. More advanced designs use single tanks that have multiple functions by combining cleaning, rinsing, and drying steps. Small scale applications such as jewelry, laboratory equipment, and surgical equipment cleaning only need a cleaning tank. Rinsing may be done through a separate, ordinary water bath, while drying is done by ambient air.
Multiple-tank Ultrasonic Cleaners: This type has separate tanks for the different steps of the cleaning process. The most common is having a three-tank system in which each tank is a station that performs either cleaning, rinsing, or drying. For production lines with higher throughput, multiple cleaning tanks are employed. Multiple cleaning tank systems can have pre-wash stages to remove loose debris, while other tanks perform ultrasonic cleaning. Fully automatic systems also use gantry robots to pick and carry the baskets containing the parts. The gantry lowers the basket into a tank for a specific amount of time, then transfers the basket onto the next station.
Immersible Ultrasonic Cleaners: Immersible (submersible) ultrasonic cleaners are detached ultrasonic transducers and generator systems that are used for new cleaning systems to add an ultrasonic cleaning function, or for retrofitting existing ultrasonic cleaning systems to improve cleaning performance. Immersible transducers can be submerged at the sides or bottom of the tank. The drop-in location depends on the load, geometry of the tank, and the volume of liquid solution. This type of ultrasonic cleaner is highly versatile since more transducers can be added which can be added at different locations. Also, the transducers can be transferred from one tank to another.
Ultrasonic Rod Transducers: Ultrasonic rod transducers have a single piezo element that creates ultrasonic vibrations in a cylindrical tube, a design that allows the ultrasonic waves to radiate in all directions from the source. When an ultrasonic rod transducer is placed in a tank, the surface area of every item is exposed to the cleaning process without any dead spots.
The power output of an ultrasonic rod transducer is up to 2 kW, with different lengths to fit the needs of any type of industrial cleaning. The single-point attachment of an ultrasonic rod transducer makes it possible to use them in closed systems, chamber systems, or open cleaning tanks with the capability of being adapted to vacuum cleaning processes and positive pressure processes at temperatures of up to 203 °F (95 °C) with short cleaning cycles. To meet the demands and requirements of modern cleaning operations, ultrasonic rod transducers are made of various materials, including stainless steel, titanium aluminum, and pure titanium.
Although an ultrasonic rod transducer's multidirectional attribute is ideal, the design has advantages beyond that single feature. They can be used to clean cylindrical surfaces and are well-suited for applications where debris breakdown is required.
Unlike dual-head transducer systems, single piezo crystals in ultrasonic rod transducers are easily replaced, which means less maintenance and longer use of the transducer.
Chapter 5: Types of Ultrasonic Cleaning Detergents
Part of the adaptability of ultrasonic cleaners is the detergents used as part of the cleaning process, which range from acidic solutions to very basic ones. Knowledge of the types of detergents prevents cleaning errors and improper cleanings, such as the removal of important components like waxes, lacquers, coatings, and antioxidation layers. The choice of detergent is one of the most critical aspects of the ultrasonic cleaning process that requires careful consideration.
Alkaline Solutions: Alkaline solutions can be used with a wide range of temperatures to remove salts, oxides, organic soils, metal chips, and grease. They have a pH of 10 or higher and contain caustic soda according to the required cleaning strength. Moderate alkaline solutions are used for cleaning metals, ceramics, glass, and most plastics.
The use of alkaline solutions is due to their effectiveness in removing organic contaminants such as oil, grease, and waxes. Oils do not easily dissolve in water due to surface tension. A component of alkaline detergents, a wetting agent, reduces the water's surface tension, enabling oils to be dissolved. Stronger alkaline solutions convert oils into soap to make them soluble in water.
High Caustic Solutions: High caustic solutions are used to clean heavy oils and grease from stainless steel, steel, or cast iron. They contain hydroxides and silicates and are highly aggressive cleaning solutions regulated by environmental standards regarding disposal and use
Acidic Solutions: Acidic solutions have a pH of five or less and are formulated to remove limescale, minerals, and rust from ferrous metals. Care must be taken in using acidic solutions with ultrasonic cleaners since they can corrode ultrasonic cleaner inner linings and the cleaning tank. When using an acidic solution, stainless steel or plastic-lined cleaning tanks are used. Acidic solutions, with an inhibitor for the protection of the ultrasonic device, are used to remove oxides from most metals, corrosion, scaling, and mineral deposits.
Enzymatic Solutions: Parts from the food and medical industries have organic contaminants that need to be removed to decontaminate them for further use. Medical instruments and tools for food processing are made of titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and plastics. Enzymatic solutions serve as biological catalysts that break down and dissolve protein-based contaminants like blood, human tissue, bacteria, and mold. Wide use of enzymatic solutions used in ultrasonic cleaners is found in the medical and dental fields as sterilization processes.
Deionized Water: Small parts like frictionless bearings, circuit boards, and small servo motors require deionized water, which works well with every type of fabric, glass, metal, plastic, epoxy, and hard rubber. A critical aspect of the ultrasonic cleaning process when using deionized water is the use of wetting baths followed by quick drying. Deionized water will work as a cleaning medium if a part can be safely placed in water. Deionized water causes better absorption and diffusion of organic and inorganic contaminants; it is made by filtering out minerals, salts, metals, and other contaminants, leaving only trace amounts. In many cleaning processes, deionized water is used to supplement other cleaning solutions.
Choosing an Ultrasonic Cleaning Solution
When deciding on an ultrasonic cleaning solution, the first step is to examine the industry where the detergent will be used and the components to be cleaned. Most manufacturers have an all-purpose detergent that can be used with any ultrasonic cleaner. The critical factor is to be sure that the chosen detergent matches the composition and structure of the items to be cleaned. As with all types of cleaning solutions, it is important to read the guidelines and chemical makeup of a detergent before making a selection.
Ultrasonic cleaning is a type of cleaning process which uses cavitation induced by alternating compression and rarefaction cycles at ultrasonic frequencies.
Cavitation removes contaminants on the surface of a part by imparting vibrations through implosions or oscillations of tiny cavities or voids.
An ultrasonic transducer converts a form of energy, usually electrical or mechanical, into an ultrasonic vibration. The two main types of ultrasonic transducers used for cleaning are piezoelectric and magnetostrictive.
The ultrasonic generator is the main component of an ultrasonic cleaner, which receives power and converts it into a suitable form for energizing the transducer at the desired frequency.
Other parts of an ultrasonic cleaning machine are the tank, basket, and electrical heaters.
Several factors can affect cleaning efficiency. These are chemical solution properties, bath temperature, solution chemistry, dissolved gasses, frequency, and power.
There are three main types of ultrasonic cleaning machines according to construction. These are single-tank, multiple-tank, and immersible ultrasonic cleaners.
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