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Electroplating Process: Definition, How It Works & Applications

What do you think makes the jewelry look extra beautiful? Who is responsible for the proper finishing of the surgical equipment? Which process improves the lifespan of an airplane? Although these three questions come from different categories, the answer is one. Yes, the electroplating process does this one perfect job.

It would be best if you had many more questions about the entire process, and that is why we have this article. Here, we will tell you about the electroplating process. How it works? The principle behind and its applications. Are you ready?

What is electroplating?

Basically, electroplating is a process of giving a makeover to things with the help of a metal layer. In simple words, it is like providing a finishing touch to the object with the help of metal. However, initially, it was done manually; the process has now evolved into a more advanced version. 

For the process, electric current is used to coat an object with different layers of metal. You may also call this process electrodeposition. The name comes from the way a layer of metal is deposited onto an object. 

The best example for you is to look for some cheap, fine-looking gold jewelry. Now, you may be wondering why it is so cheap. 

The reason is the difference between the base metal and the upper layer of the metal. Upon investigation, you may find that the base metal is copper or some cheap metal, and it is just electroplated with a layer of gold metal, thus making it shiny.

How does electroplating work?

How does electroplating work

Now that you know what electroplating means, it is time to figure out the working process. Let’s break it down into some more straightforward steps: 

Preparation of the substrate

Firstly, you have to clean the object that you are going to electroplate. Begin by removing any impurities, oxides, or contaminants. The importance of this step is to make sure that the object is clean enough for the metal to stick to it. This way, you can get a more quality finish.

Electrolyte solution

Once the object is ready, start preparing an electrolyte solution. This solution is a mix of ions of the metal that you are about to plate. In this solution, the cathode and anode are also present. Some of the common examples of electrolytes are metal salts, like copper and sulfate, for copper electroplating.

Similarly, you can have nickel and sulfate for nickel electroplating. This means that the choice of electrolyte depends on the kind of metal you are going to coat.  

Set up the electrolytic cell.

If you have your electrolyte solution ready with you, it’s time to set up the electrolytic cell. In this cell, the substrate is connected to the cathode. Along with that, a metal anode is added to the solution. After that, a direct current power supply is connected to both the rods. 

This supply of current will start a gush of electrons from the anode to the cathode. Thus, a reduction response occurs at the cathode. Eventually, the deposition of metal ions on the object happens. 

Metal deposition

You know the metal deposition process happens only when the metal cations in the electrolyte are reduced at the cathode. For this, you have to make sure there is a proper supply of electric current passing through the system you set up above. 

When it is successful, you will see a solid metal layer on the object you are plating. For a better and steady deposition rate, the anode keeps on replenishing the metal ions in the electrolyte. 

Post-treatment process

Once you have the desired thickness of the metal coating, you can remove the electroplated object. Then rinse it and polish it to beautify it even more.

The working principle behind it!

The working principle behind Electroplating

Electroplating works on the principles of electrochemistry and a very careful transfer of metal ions from the anode to the cathode in an electrolytic cell. The components of the electrolytic cell are:

  • Anode
  • Cathode (substrate rode)
  • Electrolyte solution
  • External power supply 

Just remember that before the electroplating begins, you have to clean the cathode. When the process starts, and the power is on, electrons start flowing from the anode to the cathode. At the anode, metals lose electrons and turn into +ve charged cations.

For example, in copper electroplating, copper atoms become copper ions (Cu²⁺). These metal cations then swim right through the electrolyte solution toward the cathode. At the cathode, metal cations gain electrons through a reduction reaction. Thus, you get a solid metal deposition on the substrate. So, now Cu²⁺ becomes Cu (solid copper).

The process is continuous as long as there is a power supply and the deposition rate is in control of the current density, temperature, and engagement of metal ions in the electrolyte. 

Precautions for the electroplating process

You know that you have to deal with chemicals and power supply during the process, so you have to be extra careful. Take these precautions:

PPE kit

You should always have your PPE kit ready with you at all times. The kits include protective clothes, eye protection gear, gloves, etc. Make sure that you are wearing proper clothing that covers your skin & minimizes your contact with hard chemicals.

Try wearing a full-sleeved shirt, pants & closed shoes. Make sure you have proper goggles for your eyes and chemical-resistant gloves for hand protection.

Ventilation

It is important to have a proper ventilation solution in the factory to control the gases generated during the process. This can prevent the inhalation of harmful vapors and any long-term side effects from this exposure.

Chemical handling

Chemicals you are using during the process can surely harm your health, and that is why it is important to handle them carefully. Whenever you are to mix any chemicals, make sure you do it in a ventilated area. 

Clear labels with exact content information should be put on the chemical containers. This way, you can keep an eye on everything going on, and the chemical storage area stays better organized. 

Electrical safety

Because having a power supply for this process is the most important thing, the responsibility of maintaining safety does come with it. You should keep the electrical equipment in the proper place to prevent any shocks or accidents. 

Also, every device you are planning to use must comply with the safety standards. Put insulations on all the equipment and keep checking for any failure in the future. 

Emergency unit

There is a possibility of a chemical spill or power outage during the process, and that can be fatal. So, to prevent any accident, minor or major, be ready for emergencies. Train the employees for emergency evacuations. Keep the first aid kits ready for use, and you must fill the emergency supplies in the factory right away.

Waste management

Another important precaution is taking care of the waste produced during the process. You can easily take care of the spent chemicals and other waste materials; throwing them away just like that can harm the environment. 

Temperature control

Nothing is more important than knowing what kind of water temperature is good for which electroplating process. Because some processes like heated baths and some might not. But, for the ones that work well with heated baths, be careful of burn and thermal injuries. 

Maintenance & cleaning

Even if you have every precaution under control, it is still a very good thing to inspect the equipment regularly. Please check the tanks and electrical components for any signs of damage or corrosion. This way, you can prevent the damage early and fix it beforehand. 

Proper training

Above all, see that every employee involved in the process has proper training to handle just about everything. Check if they can give emergency responses, maintain correct equipment usage, etc. If you still want to keep things fresh, maybe conduct a regular course and keep the employees updated.  

Material used in electroplating

Material used in electroplating

The list has nickel, copper, gold, silver, and many more. Let’s read more about what all these metals do and their common application.

Metal for ElectroplatingDescriptionCommon Applications
Nickel (Ni)Nickel is used because of its corrosion resistance properties. It is hard and can provide a protective coating. You can use it for decorative objects and as an undercoat. Automotive parts, kitchen utensils, jewelry, and electronic devices.
Copper (Cu)Copper has an excellent electrical conductivity and corrosion resistance. It is also used as an underlayer for other metals or as a standalone coating.Electrical connectors, printed circuit boards, plumbing fixtures.
Chromium (Cr)Chromium has exceptional corrosion resistance and provides a shiny, reflective surface. You can use it for decorative items and to improve durability.Automotive trim, kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures.
Gold (Au)Tin provides corrosion resistance and is often used as a protective coating or an underlayer for other metals.Jewelry, coins, high-end connectors, and electronic components.
Silver (Ag)Silver is popular for electrical conductivity. You can use it in electronics and for its antibacterial properties in some medical processes.Electrical contacts, silverware, mirrors, and some medical devices.
Tin (Sn)Tin provides corrosion resistance and is often used as a protective coating or as an underlayer for other metals.Tin cans, food packaging, electronic components.
Zinc (Zn)Zinc is known for its excellent corrosion resistance. You can use it as a protective layer (galvanizing) or as a base for subsequent coatings.Galvanized steel, automotive components, hardware.
Lead (Pb)Lead-based electroplating is less common due to environmental concerns. Historically, it was used for corrosion resistance and electrical conductivity.Historical applications; limited use due to environmental impact.

Advantages & disadvantages

Nearly every process has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Here are some advantages of the electroplating process:

Enhanced corrosion resistance

To begin with, let’s say electroplating is good if you want to provide a protective layer to a metal at risk of corrosion. With the help of this process, you can enhance the corrosion resistance of the substrate. This is more helpful for the objects that are exposed to harsh environments.

Improved durability

Another benefit of the electroplating process is that it adds durability to the substrate. It keeps the wearing and tearing of the object at bay. This is best for objects about to experience friction, for example, machine parts & connectors.   

Aesthetic enhancement

You know you can also use electroplating for decorative processes. Well, yes, the fascinating, shiny result will give you a more polished appearance. It will allow you to have a better visual appeal to the objects.

Increased conductivity

Some of the metals like gold & silverware are known for their excellent conductivity powers. Now, electroplating can enhance the conductivity of electrical components and connectors. 

Selective plating

The other best benefit of choosing electroplating is that you can do selective coating. This means that you can do precise deposition on specific areas of objects. The reason is that it can be used for small designs or for applications that need some specific functional properties only.

Reduced friction

If you want all that friction to go away, choose electroplating right away without a second thought. Electroplating can make them smoother and resistant to wear & tear. It is beneficial for objects like gears and bearings.

Material compatibility

You can apply the electroplating process to many materials, for instance, metals, plastics, ceramics, etc., to make them suitable for various industrial and residential purposes.

Customization & thickness control

It is now your responsibility to check the electroplated layer’s thickness. You can have whatever height you want based on the usage of the object. This control will allow you to make the object functional and aesthetically appealing.

Oxidation prevention

As we all know, environmental changes can start oxidation, but electroplating can protect you with a layer of metal. This way, the object is not exposed to air and moisture. This is particularly valuable for iron & steel.

Cost-effective options

Because solid metal components are more expensive, electroplating behaves like a much cheaper solution. You can have it done on only specific parts of the object and still have better results. 

Let’s proceed with the disadvantages and risks you can have because of the electroplating process. 

Environmental concerns

Although there are many advantages, electroplating can harm nature. It uses toxic chemicals, and when you dispose of them, you might contribute to environmental pollution. It would be best if you made more efforts to make everything environmentally friendly.

Energy consumption

This entire process is an energy-intensive process. Now, this is true when it is using high current density. So, high energy consumption leads to more costs and a more significant environmental impact.

Surface imperfection

It can be challenging to get a perfectly flawless coating; if it is not perfect, you can have pits, nodules, uneven thickness, etc. Therefore, you need proper preparation and monitor the coating while the process is happening to avoid any issues.

Limited to conductive substrates

Electroplating is suitable for conductive objects, and non-conductive objects might face a limitation here. They require pre-treatment, and that makes the process more complex. 

Complexity of equipment

You will need special tools, like rectifiers, tanks, controls, etc., to perform this process. This complexity can require more initial capital and might require more of your input.

Health & safety risks

The chemicals you use for this process can cause serious health concerns for the workers. If you do not handle it carefully, you can experience exposure to toxic material, and fumes can enter your respiratory system.

Regulatory compliance

It would be best if you had comprehensive regulations for waste disposal and chemicals you are using. It would be challenging to work with harmful chemicals because recklessly throwing them out of the factory window can harm the environment. That is why you need strict rules. 

Limited to thin coatings

Usually, electroplating coatings are thin, and getting thicker layers means extra working hours. So, this process might not suit objects needing thicker coating.

Uses of electroplating

Uses of electroplating

Many industries use the electroplating process. Let’s explore them one by one.

IndustryApplication 
ElectronicsUsed for coating connectors, printed circuit boards (PCBs), and terminals.
Mold surface finishingYou can use electroplating to coat mold surfaces with a thin layer of metal. This will help in improving the durability, corrosion resistance, and release properties of mold.
Plastic industryElectroplating can make the non-conductive plastic parts conductive and give them a metal appearance with better conductivity & other functional properties.
AutomotiveChrome plating for decorative trim and wheels. Zinc or nickel plating for corrosion resistance of automotive parts
JewelryElectroplating of gold, silver, and other special metals. Creating a durable and aesthetically pleasing finish on jewelry
AerospaceNickel and cadmium coatings for corrosion resistance. Electroplating on critical components for wear resistance
Medical DevicesElectroplating for biocompatible coatings on implants. Coating of medical instruments for corrosion resistance
Consumer GoodsChrome plating on household appliances and fixtures. Gold or silver plating on decorative items and accessories.
TelecommunicationsElectroplating for connectors, antennas, and electronic components. Tin or gold plating on connectors for improved conductivity
PlumbingCopper or nickel plating for corrosion resistance of plumbing fixtures. Chrome plating for faucets and fixtures
Metal FinishingGeneral metal finishing to enhance surface properties. Corrosion protection and improved wear resistance
Military and DefenseZinc or cadmium plating for corrosion resistance of military hardware. Electroplating for components in military electronics
Fashion and AccessoriesElectroplating for decorative finishes on accessories and apparel. Coating of eyewear frames for durability and aesthetics
Environmental SensorsElectroplating for sensor components and electrodes. Coating for improved conductivity and corrosion resistance

Parting thoughts!

Now that you know everything about the electroplating process, it’s time to decide what products you are going to get coated. For example, you can choose jewelry, ceramic objects, or electric devices. 

Whatever object you choose, just keep in the limitations and benefits of this process. If you are still confused, contact us right away, and we will guide you through the process.

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