Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Polystyrene Cutter
Name: Kenneth K. W.
Status: Other
Age: 30s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2001

I want to build a hot wire tool for cutting expanded POLYSTYRENE FOAM. If I am using NiChrome wire, does it matter if you use AC or DC? I was thinking about using an old 12volt DC car battery charger. Do you recommend this or should I just use the transformer from the charger and use 12volts AC? Thanks for your help.

Either AC or DC will work fine. A transformer is more convenient (doesn't lose its charge), but is somewhat more dangerous. You, of course, have to calculate the gauge and length of wire that will come to the desired temperature. Probably cut and try will be needed. I suppose 50 Watts might be a good first try for a 3 foot length. Using V**2/R = P,
R = V**2/P = (12V**2)/50W = 2.9 ohms might be a good first choice.

22 gauge nichrom at 0.94 ohms/foot might work.

Best, Richard J. Plano

Hi, Kenneth !!

To cut polystyrene foam you need heat. You can get it from DC or AC. Using DC, from 12 V car battery, you must have just the right length of wire. As you know, if the wire is too long or has a very small diameter, than the current will be very small, and no enough heat will be developed. If you use a very short length of wire, or if the diameter is too large, than the current will be very large and also the temperature. So you need find out the ideal conditions. These laws may be useful to you :

V = R.I .: 12 Volt = 6 ohm x 2 ampere
P = R.I^2 .: 24 Watt = 6 ohm x 4 ampere^2
R = r. L / A .: 6 ohm = 0,000012 (ohm x m ) x [ 0.05 m / (10^-8m^2) ] where 0.000012 is characteristic of material.

To know the area : you could weight the wire and considering that the density of steel is approximately 7.8 g/cm3 having the length you can estimate the Area.

Best Regards

Alcir Grohmann

Click here to return to the Engineering Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory