Final Report: Environmentally Safe, Economical Bright Chrome Application Technology for the Automotive IndustryEPA Contract Number: EPD05016
Title: Environmentally Safe, Economical Bright Chrome Application Technology for the Automotive Industry
Investigators: Sunthankar, Mandar
Small Business: IonEdge Corporation
EPA Contact: Manager, SBIR Program
Project Period: March 1, 2005 through August 31, 2005
Project Amount: $70,000
RFA: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) - Phase I (2005) RFA Text | Recipients Lists
Research Category: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) , Hazardous Waste/Remediation , SBIR - Waste
Electroplated bright chrome is widely used in the automotive sector for increasing the market appeal of vehicles. In this process, hexavalent chromium-containing bath is predominantly used because it imparts the desired appealing finish. This type of operation requires costly toxic-waste management and emissions controls. With hex-chrome being environmentally and occupationally hazardous, the process of plating with this material is under scrutiny by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and is being phased out in Europe. However, the demand for the bright chrome is increasing and, as a result, some of the chroming business is increasingly moving to Southeast Asia. The purpose of this Phase I research project is to offer a nonhazardous plating alternative for the U.S. bright chrome plating industry.
To eliminate environmental and occupational hazards and simultaneously simplify manufacturing operations in this industry, IonEdge Corp. has developed the ArcBright™ chrome technology. The purpose of this project was to advance the ArcBright chrome application to objects made of steel in the automotive sector. Consequently, the following was proposed for this research. An alternative bright chrome coating operation was to be set up to produce steel samples for testing and to conduct experiments for defect reduction. A design of experiments was proposed to find appropriate process conditions to minimize defects. ArcBright chrome samples were to be prepared and sent to an independent laboratory for testing to automotive specifications. The coatings were to be analyzed for defects and integrity. The data was to be analyzed and conclusions were to be made.
This research has been completed successfully as proposed. Furthermore, research beyond what was originally proposed has been conducted to understand the process thoroughly and eliminate weaknesses in the technology. Two classes of defects have been reduced or eliminated in this research: (1) visible physical defects that reduce market appeal, and (2) invisible defects that could cause field failures. First, the defect were observed and categorized; experiments were then conducted to minimize them. Automotive test specifications were selected and panels were prepared with bright chrome deposits and then tested to selected specifications. Improvements to the chrome deposition process were made where necessary to qualify the product to respective specifications. The chrome application process has been modeled and characterized so that chrome could be applied properly to avoid field failures.
This technology has large-scale applications—such as chroming wheels, bumpers and various accessories in the automotive industry—according to market research conducted for IonEdge. Consequently, IonEdge is closely working with a chrome plating shop in Colorado to market ArcBright chrome to the automotive sector. In the meantime, a U.S. patent has been granted and a trademark under the name “ArcBright” has been filed for this chrome finish. IonEdge has already prepared a business plan for stepping into the chrome aftermarket to start generating revenues. IonEdge is seeking equity financing to set up a chroming operation. Additional funding will be sought through the SBIR program to supplement the equity funding and to continue research toward commercialization.
IonEdge plans to set up an ArcBright demonstration line and a technology transfer center in Colorado. The company will start providing chrome coating service and find a niche in the aftermarket. Subsequently, IonEdge will obtain purchase orders from major aftermarket manufacturers and distributors. Later, the company will enter chrome coating equipment manufacturing and technology package licensing.
This research has been conducted methodically using the following sequence and procedures: (1) automotive specification selection, (2) test lab selection, (3) test panel preparation, (4) powder coating facility set up, (5) chroming operation set up, (6) defect categorization, (7) defect reduction, (8) design of experiment, and (9) thickness measurements.
A major accomplishment of this research is qualifying the technology not only for steel substrates but also for aluminum substrates. The two-layer ArcBright chrome is processed in three steps: an organic coat, cure and a chromium coat. This three-step, two-layer chrome coating operation was set up with the help of another company in the area to prepare required test samples. The vendor provided the organic coat and IonEdge applied the chrome using its proprietary process. The automotive test specifications were selected based on recommendations from an OEM wheel manufacturer—these were GM 264M for chromed aluminum and GM 4374M for chromed steel. In addition, IonEdge added GM 9985586 for organic coat, which is not used in the electroplating process. IonEdge also selected more tests than recommended to permit comprehensive quality evaluation of ArcBright chrome. As for the substrates, steel and aluminum panels of standard of size—3 by 6 by 0.063 inches and 3 by 3 by 0.063 inches—were prepared for various tests, improvements and measurements. Initially, no test or quality data were available for comparison, for improvements to be made. So baseline automotive test data needed to be generated. In the first step, as-received organic coated samples from the vendor were chrome plated and defects were analyzed. Subsequently, the panels were sent to a selected laboratory for testing. A database was generated for each layer, and defects and failure modes were investigated. Then, process improvements were made as required to eliminate failure modes. Separate experiments were conducted to minimize defects, and corresponding process conditions were investigated. Finally, it was determined that to eliminate failures under certain test conditions, the chrome coating process needed to be understood. Consequently, a design of experiments was prepared using time, substrate distance and chamber pressure as variable factors. Thickness and deposition rate were dependent factors, and arc current and substrate temperature were constants. Based on prior experience, a range of each factor variation was selected and a 23 factorial design was conducted. For these experiments, 3-by-3 inch substrates were used so these could be fitted into thickness-measuring equipment. One-half of the organic coated substrates were masked to create a sharp chrome ledge for profilometric measurements. The randomized set of experiments of the design was carried out to characterize the chrome coating process. The following challenge was to measure the chrome thickness that was in few-hundred angstroms or on a few-nanometer scale. For this, the test facilities and services provided by the chemistry laboratory staff at the local Colorado State University were used. Three methods were evaluated: profilometry, X-ray ellipsometry and atomic force microscopy. After comparing the results, profilometry appeared promising and was finally selected. Three to five measurements were made on each sample and the average was taken to prepare the computational analysis. A polynomial model equation was derived and response plots were prepared. The results indicated that the chrome deposition rate was inversely proportional to each independent factor.
The key discovery was that under certain process conditions, the deposition rate was nearly independent of independent variables. This knowledge is useful because it allows for process control, as well as deposition of uniform coatings, on relatively large area objects with complex shapes. The design has resulted in defining the chrome coating process for commercially viable ArcBright chrome. Finally, based on the test results, improvements made and experimental discovery, a commercially viable ArcBright chrome process has been recommended for the scale up to the Phase II of this project.