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Corrosion-related issues cost the U.S. economy $276 billion a year. The Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) teamed up with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to create a cost-effective technology to reduce that impact. The work resulted in the creation of LumiShield, a new CMU/NETL spinoff that signed a licensing agreement with the laboratory for the ionic liquid solvent for aluminum electroplating process.

The LumiShield process can be used on a range of products, from automobile and engine parts, to hip replacement parts.

The new process, which electrodeposits aluminum using standard equipment available in most electroplating shops, replaces coatings based on heavy metals, such as cadmium and chromium, that are expensive and toxic. Electroplating is the process of depositing a metal coating onto an object by putting a negative charge on it and immersing it in a solution.

LumiShield specializes in corrosion-resistant metal products that are less expensive and less environmentally harmful than existing approaches. Hunaid Nulwala, one of the technology’s inventors, said that the process has great potential for reducing the costs of protecting products from corrosion while eliminating some difficult environmental hazards.

“Current electroplating processes devoted to corrosion resistance often use chromium and cadmium as barrier coatings on metals that are used for a range of products, from kitchen appliances and ships, to bridge steel, engine parts, and even hip replacement parts,” he said. “But chromium and cadmium are expensive, heavily regulated, and environmentally harmful.”

Aluminum is less toxic than most of the materials used in anticorrosion coatings, but it cannot be plated in the presence of water, making it much more difficult to apply. In addition, existing technology for aluminum coatings requires an inert atmosphere and uses a toxic chemical called toluene at elevated temperatures as a solvent, requiring it to be performed in sealed vessels. That is a much more expensive coating approach.

Aluminum films in a variety of thicknesses may be deposited on steel. The electroplated aluminum layer that’s created forms a hard, self-healing aluminum oxide layer upon contact with air, protecting the surface. The plating solution contains ionic liquids (salts in liquid state) in open vessels without creating toxic vapors. The result is a more cost-efficient, environmentally responsible process. In addition, the process can be altered to produce a variety of properties and finishes that meet specifications for a range of applications.

This process represents a major advance over current technology in several respects. It may be conducted in open vessels without production of organic vapors or interference from atmospheric water, meaning it can be conducted in existing electroplating equipment. Additionally, the large electrochemical window of the electrolyte grants greater freedom in operational parameters, and hence improved process flexibility.

Because the process can be conducted with full exposure to air, it can also be adapted to brush plating, which allows the fabrication of large and irregularly shaped components without the need for major capital equipment installations. Taken together, these technical advantages translate into improved versatility, diminished environmental impact, and reduced cost.

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