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I'm doing a science project on electroplating and I need a good solution to bond copper onto steel. I have tried the vinegar solutions, but they are too weak and only create a thick film that rubs off: I need something stronger.
Question Date: 2003-09-02
Answer 1:

This is a bit tougher than it sounds -- are you trying to plate mild (0.1% carbon) steel, cast iron, galvanized steel, tool steel or a variety of stainless? Very small quantities of zinc or manganese react with electroplating reagents, resulting in 'burn' or 'smut'. Another problem is that many standard plating solutions require 'pickling' of the metal in a weak non-oxidizing acid and a common acid of choice is phosphoric acid, which is hard to come by these days as it reacts to make a number of environmentally dangerous compounds (Roundup- is essentially a sugar-phosphoric acid complex).

The biggest problem in most plating processes is surface preparation. (If you have a steel with something other than iron in it, you might need to 'flash' plate a coating on it, to be covered by the copper -- so that the copper electrolyte does not react with the metal substrate. In any case, I'd try pickling in a weak acid, (Naval jelly is weak phosphoric acid), followed by a strip cleaning. The classic plating solution is copper sulfate (acid activated) and distilled water in stainless or glass vessels.

Please be careful -- and good luck! If you can't get it to work -- it may well be substrate problems -- but there are lots of plating shops in the area, and nickle is very commonly used as a flashing under copper on iron.

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