Galvanization (or galvanisation) is the process of applying a protective zinc coating to steel or iron, in order to prevent rusting. The term is derived from the name of Italian scientist Luigi Galvani.
Although galvanization can be done with electrochemical and electrodeposition processes, the most common method in current use is hot-dip galvanization, in which steel parts are submerged in a bath of molten zinc.
In current use, the term refers to the coating of steel or iron with zinc. This is done to prevent rusting of the ferrous item. The value of galvanizing stems from the corrosion resistance of zinc, which, under most service conditions, is considerably greater than that of iron and steel. The zinc serves as a sacrificial anode, so that it cathodically protects exposed steel. This means that even if the coating is scratched or abraded, the exposed steel will still be protected from corrosion by the remaining zinc – an advantage absent from paint, enamel, powder coating and other methods. Galvanizing is also favored as a means of protective coating because of its low cost, ease of application and comparatively long maintenance-free service life.
The term galvanizing, while technically referring specifically to the application of zinc coating by the use of a galvanic cell (also known as electroplating), is also generally understood to include hot-dip zinc coating. The practical difference is that hot-dip galvanization produces a thick, durable and matte gray coating – electroplated coatings tend to be thin and brightly reflective. Due to its thinness, the zinc of electroplated coatings is quickly depleted, making them unsuitable for outdoor applications (except in very dry climates). When combined with subsequent painting (which slows zinc consumption), electroplating is durable enough to be used in some premium auto body coatings.
Nonetheless, electroplating is used on its own for many outdoor applications because it is cheaper than hot dip zinc coating and looks good when new. Another reason not to use hot dip zinc coating is that for bolts and nuts size M10 or smaller, the thick hot-dipped coating fills in too much of the threads, which reduces strength (because the dimension of the steel prior to coating must be reduced for the fasteners to fit together). This means that for cars, bicycles and many other ‘light’ mechanical products, the alternative to electroplating bolts and nuts is not hot dip zinc coating but making the bolts and nuts from stainless steel (known by the corrosion grades A4 and A2).
Electroplated steel is visually indistinguishable from stainless steel when new. To determine whether a part is electroplated or stainless steel, apply a magnet. The most common stainless steel alloys (including those used for bolts and nuts) are not magnetic or only very slightly attracted to a magnet.
Originally, “galvanization” was the administration of electric shocks (in the 19th century also termed Faradism, after Michael Faraday). It stemmed from Galvani’s induction of twitches in severed frogs’ legs, by his accidental generation of electricity. Its claims to health benefits have largely been disproved, except for some limited uses in psychiatry in the form of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This archaic sense is the origin of the meaning of galvanic when meaning “affected/affecting, as if by a shock of electricity; startled”. and the metaphorical “galvanize into action” referring to suddenly stimulating a complacent person or group to take action. Later the word was used for processes of electrodeposition, which remains a useful and broadly applied technology. But the term “galvanization” has largely come to be associated with zinc coatings, to the exclusion of other metals.
Galvanic paint, a precursor to hot-dip galvanization, was patented by Stanislas Sorel, of Paris, France in December, 1837.
The earliest known example of galvanizing of iron was found 30 September 1999 by the Royal Armouries Museum on a 17th century Indian armor in their collection.
Main articles: Hot-dip galvanizing and Sherardizing
Zinc coatings prevent corrosion of the protected metal by forming a physical barrier, and by acting as a sacrificial anode even if this barrier is damaged. When exposed to the atmosphere, zinc reacts with oxygen to form zinc oxide, which further reacts with water molecules in the air to form zinc hydroxide. In turn, zinc hydroxide reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to yield a thin, impermeable, tenacious and quite insoluble dull gray layer of zinc carbonate which adheres extremely well to the underlying zinc, so protecting it from further corrosion. This is similar to the protection afforded to aluminium and stainless steels by their oxide layers.
Hot-dip galvanizing deposits a thick robust layer that may be more than is necessary for the protection of the underlying metal in some applications. This is the case in automobile bodies, where additional rust proofing paint will be applied. Here, a thinner form of galvanizing is applied by electroplating, called “electrogalvanization”. The hot-dip process slightly reduces the strength of the base metal, which is a consideration for the manufacture of wire rope and other highly-stressed products. The protection provided by this process is insufficient for products that will be constantly exposed to corrosive materials such as salt water. For these applications, more expensive stainless steel is preferred. Some nails made today are electro-galvanized.
As noted previously, both mechanisms are often at work in practical applications. For example, the traditional measure of a coating’s effectiveness is resistance to a salt spray. Thin coatings cannot remain intact indefinitely when subject to surface abrasion, and the galvanic protection offered by zinc can be sharply contrasted to more noble metals. As an example, a scratched or incomplete coating of chromium actually exacerbates corrosion of the underlying steel, since it is less electrochemically active than the substrate.
Galvanized surface with visible spangle
The size of crystallites in galvanized coatings is a visible and aesthetic feature, known as spangle. By varying the number of particles added for heterogeneous nucleation and the rate of cooling in a hot-dip process, the spangle can be adjusted from an apparently uniform surface (crystallites too small to see with the naked eye) to grains several centimetres wide. Visible crystallites are rare in other engineering materials.
Thermal diffusion galvanizing, a form of Sherardizing, provides a zinc coating on iron or copper based materials partially similar to hot dip galvanizing. The final surface is different than hot-dip galvanizing, in that all of its zinc is alloyed. Zinc is applied in a powder form with “accelerator chemicals” (generally sand, but other chemicals are patented). The parts and the zinc powder are tumbled in a sealed drum while it is heated to slightly below zinc’s melting temperature. The drum must be heated evenly, or complications will arise. Due to the chemicals added to the zinc powder, the zinc/iron makes an alloy at a lower temperature than hot dip galvanizing. This process requires generally fewer preparatory cleanings than other methods. The dull-grey crystal structure formed by the process bonds more strongly with paint, powder coating, and rubber overmolding processes than other methods. It is a preferred method for coating small, complex-shaped metals, and for smoothing in rough surfaces on items formed with powder metal.
Rusted corrugated steel roof
Although galvanizing will inhibit attack of the underlying steel, rusting will be inevitable, especially if exposed to the natural acidity of rain. For example, corrugated iron sheet roofing will start to degrade within a few years despite the protective action of the zinc coating. Marine and salty environments also lower the lifetime of galvanized iron because the high electrical conductivity of sea water increases the rate of corrosion. Galvanized car frames exemplify this; they corrode much quicker in cold environments due to road salt. Galvanized steel can last for many years if other means are maintained, such as paint coatings and additional sacrificial anodes.
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