Electroplating of metals

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Electroplating of metals

The process of electrodepositing metallic coatings to alter the existing surface properties or the dimensions of an object. Electroplated coatings are applied for decorative purposes, to improve resistance to corrosion or abrasion, or to impart desirable electrical or magnetic properties. Plating is also used to increase the dimensions of worn or undersized parts. An example of a decorative coating is that of nickel and chromium on automobile bumpers. However, in this application, corrosion and abrasion resistance are also important. An example of electrodeposition used primarily for corrosion protection is zinc plating on such steel articles as nuts, bolts, and fasteners. Since zinc is more readily attacked by most atmospheric corrosive agents, it provides galvanic or sacrificial protection for steel. An electrolytic cell is formed in which zinc, the less noble metal, is the anode, and steel, the more noble one, the cathode. The anode corrodes, and the cathode is protected.

The electroplating process consists essentially of connecting the parts to be plated to the negative terminal of a direct-current source and another piece of metal to the positive pole, and immersing both in a solution containing ions of the metal to be deposited. The part connected to the negative terminal becomes the cathode, and the other piece the anode. In general, the anode is a piece of the same metal that is to be plated. Metal dissolves at the anode and is plated at the cathode.

Most plating solutions are of the aqueous type. There is a limited use of fused salts or organic liquids as solvents. Nonaqueous solutions are employed for the deposition of metal with lower hydrogen overvoltages; that is, hydrogen rather than the metal is reduced at the cathode in the presence of water.

In order for adherent coatings to be deposited, the surface to be plated must be clean, that is, free from all foreign substances such as oils and greases, as well as oxides or sulfides. The two essential steps are cleaning and pickling.

Three principal cleaning methods are employed to remove grease and attached solids. (1) In solvent cleaning, the articles undergo vapor degreasing, in which a solvent such as tri- or tetrachloroethylene is boiled in a closed system, and its vapors are condensed on the metal surfaces. (2) In emulsion cleaning, the metal parts are immersed in a warm mixture of kerosine, a wetting agent, and an alkaline solution. (3) In electrolytic cleaning, the articles are immersed in an alkaline solution, and a direct current is passed between them and the other electrode, which is usually steel. Ultrasonic cleaning is also used extensively, especially for blind holes or gears packed with soils. Ultrasonic waves introduced into a cleaning solution facilitate and accelerate the detachment of solid particles embedded in crevices and small holes.

In the pickling process, oxides are removed from the surface of the basis metal. For steel, warm, dilute sulfuric acid is used in large-scale operations because it is inexpensive; but room-temperature, dilute hydrochloric acid is also used for pickling because it is fast-acting. Hydrogen embrittlement may be caused by the diffusion of hydrogen in steel (especially high-carbon steel) during pickling and also in certain plating operations. See Embrittlement

Electropolishing is used when a thin, bright deposit is to be produced. In this case, the substrate surface contours are essentially copied by the deposit. The substrate surface therefore must have a bright finish which can be attained by electropolishing. See Electropolishing

Special processes, such as electroforming and anodizing, are required for certain applications. Electroforming is a special type of plating in which thick deposits are subsequently removed from the substrate, which acts as a mold. The process is particularly suitable for forming parts which require intricate designs on inside surfaces. Important applications of electro-forming are in the production of phonograph record masters, printing plates, and some musical instruments and fountain pen caps as well in waveguides. In anodizing, a process related to plating, an oxide is deposited on a metal which is the anode in a suitable solution. The process is primarily used with aluminum, but it can be applied to beryllium, magnesium, tantalum, and titanium. Colored coatings can be produced by the incorporation of dyes. See Metal coatings