LOS ALAMOS, N.M., Dec. 22, 1997 -- Metallurgists at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory who honed their craft in the nuclear weapons arena are now sharing their expertise with a Santa Fe sculptor and others in the art world.
The Los Alamos researchers, Kendall Hollis and Richard Castro, are adapting industrial technology for spraying molten metals to create corrosive-resistant coatings on nuclear weapons storage containers so they are suitable for long- term storage. Now they are taking their techniques and unique knowledge to the art community to coat sculptures and create corrosion-resistant, highly polished artistic surfaces out of metal combinations not previously possible.
Hollis and Castro earlier this year contacted sculptor Tom Bollinger, who was managing a local art foundry and is now based in Arizona. The three have formed a business called Scintilla Artworks to commercialize the sculpture spraying technique and develop metal spray technology specific for the needs of the art community.
Using the metal spray technology, the team can coat nearly any surface to any desired thickness. Hollis and Castro used a wire-arc spray process to coat an aluminum casting of Bollinger's sculpture called "New Life." The sculpture represents the bond between a pregnant woman and her unborn child.
The technique uses a commercially available device resembling an arc welder that produces a fine metal spray. Two wires, made of the metal that serves as the coating, receive opposite electrical charges, which creates a small electric arc between them and melts the tips of the wires. A pressurized gas blows the melted wire into a fine metal spray that can coat an object from as thin as a few thousandths of an inch to as much as an inch thick.
The metal spray technique is more efficient than conventional casting because it requires less energy to melt the tips of the wires than to heat a large pot of material. It also allows artists to cast with more easily worked materials, then finish the form with a sprayed metal coating.
Another advantage of metal spraying is that it allows the artist to blend different metals. Part of Bollinger's sculpture is bronze surrounded by nickel. Conventional techniques would have made the combination of nickel and bronze metals extremely difficult. The two metals would have to be separately cast, precisely shaped to fit each other and welded into place.
"Metal sprayed coatings offer a new way of combining different metals that could never be done before," Bollinger said.
The researchers at Los Alamos spray different metals on cast pieces and can fill in flaws and smooth out the sculpture. Bollinger then uses conventional polishing techniques to buff and shine the finished product. If a mistake occurs, it can be sprayed again and buffed away.
There is a trend in the art community for large-scale, cast, stainless steel sculptures for outdoor settings. To achieve these forms, artists and foundry workers must cast the sculpture in small sections and weld the pieces together.
Stainless steel welds can distort the sculpture's form, however, requiring extensive finishing to regain the original shape. The spray technology allows artists to use larger cast sections of aluminum, which require fewer welds overall when they are joined; a spray coat of stainless steel finishes the piece. Reducing the distortion makes it easier for the artist to finish the piece or reproduce it.
Bollinger believes the metal-spray process, which he calls both a creative and technological resource, could significantly impact the large-scale sculpture community.
Metal spraying is not new to the sculpture art community. But, Castro said, "the knowledge and expertise we've gained in developing this technology for national security applications can bring state-of-the-art metallurgy techniques to sculpture production. The application of an outer corrosion-resistant coating to an underlying, easily cast and worked material opens up many new possibilites in fine art production."
Hollis and Castro were interested in how their technology could be commercialized and how it could benefit surrounding communities in northern New Mexico, which led to Scintilla Artworks.
Los Alamos is operated by the University of California for DOE.
Materials provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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