What is Electroplating? (And Other Common Questions)

Electroplating is the process of adding a layer of metal to a substrate. This can be done for a number of reasons, including to protect or beautify an object. Even though you may not be familiar with the electroplating process, you deal with its fruits on a daily basis. Electroplating is critical to the creation of cameras, cell phones, computers, cars, and more.

Electroplating Common Questions

(Pixabay / Bru-nO)

Here are a few basic Q&As about electroplating:

Who invented it?

Luigi Brugnatelli, an Italian professor, discovered the process in 1805 while conducting voltaic electricity experiments. Brugnatelli took two silver medals and immersed them in a gold solution.

He then used an electric current to get the gold solution to coat the medals. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re not alone. Most people in his day hadn’t either. That’s because the French Academy of Sciences, the preeminent scientific body of the day, had a falling out with Brugnatelli and prevented his work from being published.

Thus, electroplating technology lay dormant until 1839. In that year, one scientist from Russia and two from Great Britain arrived at the same discovery that Brugnatelli had decades earlier. This time, they unveiled it for the world to see.

What process was used before electroplating?

There were two main methods to coat materials with metal before electroplating came along. For a thin coat of metal, water gilding was used. For a thicker coat, fire gilding was used. Why don’t we use these methods today? Because the methods both relied on mercury, which can be very hazardous to health.

What were some of the first uses of electroplating?

When the public learned about electroplating, it became very popular, particularly for decorative purposes. Now, there was a safe way to coat a cheap, unattractive surface with a rare and expensive metal. Gold plated items looked like they were solid gold, but cost only a fraction of the price of the real deal. Products that were commonly electroplated included small decorative such as vases and service pieces as well as large, iconic fixtures like cathedral domes and religious statues.

What are some of the most common uses of electroplating today?

We still electroplate items for beauty. Think of gold-plated jewelry, for example. Electroplating is also used for items that need to resist corrosion and friction. The gilding processes of the 1800s could not produce this kind of durability, making electroplating a preferred choice from the outset. Electroplating is also used to make components electrically conductive.

Is electroplating safe?

The process has become safer with time. Prior to the 1950s, plating was done in cyanide baths. Safer acid formulas are now used. There is still a risk of electrocution and poisoning when electroplating, so safety gear must always be worn, and safety precautions must always be followed with exactness.

What is the future of electroplating?

The electronics industry relies on electroplating, and demand for electronics doesn’t show any signs of abating. Gold plating solutions will continue to improve—so will all metal solutions for that matter, with an eye to greater safety. Non-metal substrates will become more common, and there will be more attention on dry finishing processes to reduce the reliance on chemicals that create industrial waste. Electroplating processes could be robotized for greater efficiency and safety.

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