The Electroless Nickel Phenomenon

By Doug Trageser

In my 30 years of selling in the metal finishing industry, I have seen many changes and improvements to processes that have benefited the companies that sell and apply those processes to finished goods.  The process that I believe has improved the most in that time is the electroless nickel (EN) plating process.

Early in my career in the mid 1980’s, a handful of plating shops were applying electroless nickel, but they were few and far between.  The technology was not as well understood then, as there was not nearly as much published literature on the subject as there is now. This was also prior to Al Gore inventing the internet (although he was probably busy working on it at the time).  Electroless nickel was very much a niché process that seemed like black magic to most platers. For those that were plating EN, they struggled with maintaining bath life and the high cost per square foot of surface area.

As we entered the 1990’s the research and development intensified as engineers who were looking for high quality finishes with unique properties recognized that EN offered advantages over finishes such as hard chrome and electroplated nickel.  One company even developed a regenerative EN process that chemically removed the spent phosphite from the bath and replenished with active phosphite, which enabled the plater to get double or triple the bath life.  By the end of the 1990’s, technology such as electrodialysis was being used to recover spent EN baths.

In the early 2000’s, EN was becoming a popular choice of finishes due to better technology and more accessible education opportunities for the platers.  The suppliers of the EN processes were making their processes more “user friendly” as well.  As the demand for EN finishes increased, the technology kept improving with alloys available in the EN processes that offered outstanding properties such as higher corrosion resistance, harder deposits and higher coefficient of friction properties.  Alloys such as phosphorous, boron, Teflon and diamond were also available.

At this same time, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Act (RoHS) began limiting the concentration of certain chemicals in plating processes.  As a result, formulators of EN processes were tasked with eliminating lead and cadmium from their processes.  Lead is historically used as a stabilizer to keep the bath from spontaneously plating out while cadmium is historically used as a brightener.  The proprietary formulations available in 2016 have enough history now to claim that lead-free and cad-free processes are on par with the more traditional processes that contain lead and cadmium.

In 2016, electroless nickel finishes are as popular as ever due to many factors.  Currently, the nickel prices are as low as they have been for some time which will keep the operating costs for EN competitive.  EN finishes offer the following:

  • Bright deposits
  • Semi-bright deposits
  • Uniform plating thickness
  • Hard and durable deposits
  • Excellent corrosion resistance
  • Outstanding coefficient of friction

Asterion is pleased to offer our E-NIC line of electroless nickel processes, including our new E-NIC 1000 series of products.  Please contact us to assist with your electroless nickel requirements.