Thermites are a double-edged sword. Packing a tremendous energy density, and eager to produce tremendous heat when ignited, thermite is great for welding train tracks. But sometimes you might be looking for a little more finesse. A new approach to 3D printing thermites might just be able to tame the beast.
Most of us do our soldering while sitting safely indoors in a comfortable climate. The biggest dangers we’re likely to face are burnt fingertips, forgetting the heat shrink, or accidentally releasing the smoke monster. But outside of our homes and workshops, there’s a lot of extreme joining of metals going on. No matter where it’s done, welding and brazing in the field requires a lot of equipment, some of which is unwieldy and even more difficult to move around in harsh conditions.
The utility of brazing is limited by all the complex scaffolding of hardware required to support it. This limiting factor and the discovery of thermite led to exothermic welding, which uses an energetic material to provide enough heat to melt a filler metal and join the pieces. Energetic materials can store a lot of chemical energy and forcefully release it in a short period of time.
Thermites are made of metal oxide and metal powder, often iron oxide and aluminium. When ignited by a source of high heat, thermite compounds undergo an exothermic reduction-oxidation (redox) reaction as the aluminium reduces the number of electrons in the iron oxide atoms. More heat makes the reaction run faster, generating more heat, and so on. The result is molten iron and aluminium oxide slag.