What’s the difference between electropolishing vs. passivation? Are both necessary for processing a part? Which one should be done first?
These common questions often lead to confusion in industry because of specification callouts vs. true understanding of each process.
Passivation Definition is…
a non-electrolytic process typically using nitric or citric acid which removes free iron from the surface and forms an inert, protective oxide layer that in turn renders the stainless steel more rust-resistant due to lack of iron to react with atmosphere. During machining manufacturing processes, the stainless steel parts may have imperfections from iron being embedded or smeared onto the surface from the machining tool steels.
These free irons on the surface of the stainless steel need to be removed to prevent a corrosive reaction that can occur between the two different metals. The passivation of stainless steel chemically removes these free irons and forms a passive oxide “film” layer which further improves corrosion resistance. When exposed to air, the stainless steel undergoing passivation will form a chemically inactive or inert surface. This is one advantage of using citric acid vs. nitric acid for passivation.
Electropolishing Definition is…
an electrolytic/ electrochemical process which dissolves the electrically active asperities to leave an ultra-smooth surface for reasons such as cleanliness, deburring, polishing and to prevent materials from sticking. Through the electropolishing process, surface material is removed by anodic dissolution using electrical current passing through electrolytic solution.
So What’s the Difference between Electropolishing and Passivation?
As a non-electrolytic process, passivation uses solutions like citric acid or nitric acid instead of the electrical current used in electropolishing. Passivation removes free iron and foreign matter from metal surfaces and creates an inert oxide layer or film.
Electropolishing, a non-mechanical interactive process, can be used on objects with complex geometries. The electropolishing process uses a combination of electrolytic chemicals and an electrical current to carefully eliminate imperfections and contaminants from metal part surfaces. This particular process is an alternative to abrasive fine polishing. Electropolishing can be used to polish, deburr, and smooth metal components, and also causes material removal to occur including the free irons on the surface of the part.
Electropolishing would be the more appropriate approach when aesthetics are the priority, as it provides a smoother, polished surface. Passivation, on the other hand, does not change or brighten the surface appearance and is not an effective method for removing oxide heat effect scale from surfaces that have been welded or heat treated.
Why do some specifications require electropolishing AND passivation?
There is some debate that electropolishing, since it uniformly removes ALL material from the part surface, could remove chromium from the part surface and expose iron. Electropolishing might compromise stainless steel’s corrosion resistance properties. The other side of the debate says that electropolishing forms a deeper, thicker oxide layer than any type of passivation because electropolishing actually affects more than the part surface whereas passivation only reacts with surface-level elements.
Most common in the medical device and aerospace industries, both electropolishing and passivation are called out together on specifications. The proper process then is to electropolish to utilize the surface removal, polishing advantages of electropolishing and then follow it up with passivation to remove any possible free irons on the surface which were exposed during electropolishing. Share your knowledge about electropolishing vs. passivation of stainless steel with your coworkers or employees!