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What is Involved in Electroplating Metal?

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  • Written By: Alex Newth
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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Electrodeposition is the process of electroplating metal or an electrode's surface. The science behind electroplating metal is complex when it comes to determining what metals will work with each other and how to mix the chemicals, but the process itself is rather easy to understand. Essentially, two metals are placed in an electro-conductive liquid, and a charge is applied to both. One of the metals will then dissolve, and the electroplating metal will absorb the dissolved metal, adding to its mass. This is used to give the electrode properties, such as durability, or to thicken the thin parts of the electrode’s surface.

The first part of electroplating metal is choosing which metal to add to the electrode, based on the properties that particular metal has. When this is done, an electrolyte solution is created. An electrolyte solution is an electro-conductive liquid that has metal salts and ions dissolved into it to allow electricity to flow better through the liquid. After this, the electrode and the metal to be dissolved are added into the electrolyte.

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These three properties — the electrode, the electrolyte and the metal to be dissolved — can be likened to the three parts of a battery: the cathode, electrolyte and anode. The cathode is a negatively charged substance, and in this case is the electrode. The electrolyte allows the electricity to flow, and the anode is the positively charge portion. Normally, in a battery, the power from the anode would be blocked by the electrolyte and would have to travel through the device before getting to to the anode. In the process of electroplating metal, the anode is able to directly travel to the cathode.

The cathode and anode portions of the electroplating are hooked up to an external battery, supplying positive energy to the anode and negative to the cathode. When the charge is sent through the metals, the anode will begin to deteriorate. The opposite charge is present, so the metal will instantly travel to the cathode electrode, coating it. This causes the metal to be electroplated.

When the anode breaks down, there is no metal lost. All of the metal broken down travels to the cathode, so no extra metal has to be added to receive the necessary amount of electroplating. At the same time, the anode metal is able to replenish any lost ions in the electrolyte. This permits it to continue conducting electricity without the scientists or workers having to add new ions to allow the electroplating to progress.

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