Ask the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and they'll tell you the Mississippi Queen is "the fulfillment of Mark Twain's dream." Over time, however, Twain's dream has become too expensive to maintain so the riverboat, once the largest in the world, was recently dismantled. The task was no small job. Because of the size of the project and the unique challenges it posed, the company charged with the overwhelming task of salvaging her turned to Hypertherm's plasma cutting technology.
The steamboat was built in 1974, but by 2011, she was beyond any hope of renovation. "She was out of service and could no longer be repaired," explains Dave Reidt, owner of the Argosy Boat Company. Reidt recognized the Mississippi Queen's importance in the region. "She was a popular cruise ship that sailed between Minneapolis and New Orleans, totally driven by steam, and the paddle wheel was its sole source of propulsion. It had a steam calliope that you could hear up and down the river for miles."
"The Mississippi Queen was in severe disrepair. It would have taken millions of dollars to have her running again," said Gary Burford, Territory Manager for Praxair Distribution, a company out of Geismar, La. that specializes in the sale of welding and gas equipment. Burford assisted Reidt in selecting the right tools for the job.
The metal she holds, however, is worth one-and-a-half million dollars, making it a simple math problem for her owners, and reusing the metals she contains will have environmental benefits as well. The most valuable metal she contains is steel, so the majority of the ship will be sent to steel mills to be melted down and recycled for new purposes. Beyond steel, she also contains valuable "aluminum, copper, brass, heavy steel, light steel--she has a plethora of different metals," said Reidt.
Her greatest value is also her greatest challenge. Because she has so many different metals, it is an understatement to say that salvaging her is a difficult task. The Mississippi Queen is 382 feet long, 68 feet wide and 71 feet high. There are 208 staterooms, and she has the world's largest calliope with 44 gold-plated solid brass pipes. It may take six months to fully salvage her, delayed, in part, by a common 45-day asbestos abatement process.
Reidt discovered that he could not meet project deadlines without breaking his budget, with the equipment he had at that time. At first, Argosy Boat Company was using an oxy-fuel cutting process to carve through the endless metal, but this required cranes to bring in 435-pound containers of propane-based cutting fuel, and it burned through roughly fifteen 12-packs of oxygen tanks at around $3,000 per week. Plus, cutting with oxy wasn't an effective process for the varied metals on the Queen.
Praxair's Burford and his colleague, Jerry Kleive, analyzed Argosy Boat Company's needs.They recommended making the switch to a plasma cutting system, specifically recommending a Hypertherm Powermax85. After a brief demonstration with Mark Hartness, District Sales Manager for Hypertherm, Reidt bought four of them.
Before Praxair's recommendation, Dave Reidt hadn't considered Hypertherm simply because such products weren't typical for this kind of work. "Plasma cutters have historically been used for precision cutting because they cut such a fine line." Burford said, "Literally three minutes into our demo, Reidt said 'I've seen enough' and signed the paperwork."
"This is the first application of a plasma cutter we've used for a demolition project at Argosy," said Reidt. "But it's done such a remarkable job; I would recommend it for anyone doing demolition."
Hypertherm's plasma systems improved Argosy's work significantly by providing a faster, cheaper and safer option. With oxy-fuel, Argosy was cutting 15 inches per minute. Now, they easily cut 40 to 50 inches per minute. In addition to cutting metals three times faster, the company dismantled the boat in one third of the time, thus saving money on materials and transportation costs, since the company no longer had to purchase and move the oxygen tanks needed for the oxy-fuel process. The tanks are expensive to move, and are also extremely flammable. "The plasma cutter is extremely fast, much faster than a conventional torch, and we saved over 60 percent in our costs as the plasma cutter requires no gas to cut steel, only compressed air. Our actual dollar savings will pay for the unit in 30 days or less. It is much more efficient and far less costly," said Reidt.
In addition to the cost and burden of oxygen tanks, the oxy-fuel cutting system was unable to tackle the wide variety of metals that the Mississippi Queen contained. It couldn't cut through brass, copper or aluminum. Reidt said that the Hypertherm Powermax85 cuts small as well as heavy metal, and it was very advantageous during the asbestos abatement process because we were able to cut entire sections of asbestos-affected wall down, helping the people at Argosy Boat Company return to their work more quickly and cut through even the thinnest metals.
As a child, Burford remembers his fascination with the paddle wheel and the cloud of cool mist it created for those seated in the back. As an adult, he recognizes what a massive undertaking her salvage represents. With this new equipment, recycling her metals will be significantly quicker, and the Queen will get a royal send-off with what is literally cutting-edge technology.