In electroplating, two metal objects are placed in an electrolyte solution. The object to be plated is attached to the negative terminal of a power source, while the metal to be used in plating connects to the positive terminal. Ions from the plating metal dissolve into the solution, then form a layer on the surface of the object attached to the negative terminal. The thin metal coatings created by electroplating have a wide range of applications.
One of the most common uses of electroplating is the deposition of conductive layers on electronic components. Electroplating can deposit very small amounts of these substances, placing just enough on the part to conduct electricity as needed. This results in significant savings, since highly conductive metals, such as gold and copper, tend to be expensive compared to the other substances used in manufacturing electronic components.
Electroplating has a number of industrial functions. Mechanical components often receive an outer electroplated layer of another metal such as zinc, nickel or chromium to protect them from damage. Zinc and cadmium layers, sometimes called "sacrificial" layers, corrode more quickly than the base metal, while nickel, chromium and other protective layers provide a corrosion-resistant coating to metals that would otherwise be vulnerable to damage from damp or other factors.
Jewellers use electroplating for a number of purposes. Electroplating can reduce costs by depositing a thin layer of a precious metal such as gold onto a piece made from a less-expensive material. Additionally, electroplating allows jewellers to deposit an outer layer on fine surfaces that might be too difficult to gild or otherwise decorate by hand. Electroplating in jewellery is used not only to protect metals against damage or corrosion, as in other areas of industry, but to enhance the appearance of a piece.
Electronics, machine parts and jewellery are the main applications of electroplating, but far from the only ones. Electroplating is also used to produce items as diverse as medical equipment, musical instruments and even the decorative chrome on cars. Specialised electroplating layers are used to provide protection not only against rust but against more esoteric dangers such as radiation. In any case where a thin layer of metal is needed, either for its special properties or for its appearance, electroplating provides a cost-effective way to apply it.
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