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Electrical Etching

Science Snack
Electrical Etching
Etch patterns on metal using saltwater and electricity.
Electrical Etching
Etch patterns on metal using saltwater and electricity.

The chlorine in saltwater can corrode many metals, including stainless steel, leaving them pitted and rough. Speed along the process with electricity, and rapidly etch a pattern onto stainless steel.

Tools and Materials
  • Small piece of stainless steel
  • Electrical tape
  • Scissors
  • Salt (kosher or pickling salt preferred)
  • Distilled water
  • Spoon (to stir saltwater; not shown)
  • 9-volt battery
  • Two alligator clips
  • Several cotton swabs
  1. Using electrical tape, make a design of your own choosing on the stainless steel (see photo below for an example).
  2. Add about 2 teaspoons (10 g) salt to 1 cup (250 mL) distilled water. Stir until dissolved.
  3. Attach one end of an alligator clip to the positive terminal of the battery and the other end to the stainless steel (see photo below).
  4. Attach one end of the second alligator clip to a cotton swab (right where the cotton meets the stem) and the other end to the negative terminal of the battery (see photo below).
To Do and Notice

Dip a cotton swab into the saltwater and press it against the stainless steel (see photos below). What happens to the steel?

Dip again and press against another spot. Repeat until the whole piece is covered, replacing the cotton swab with a fresh one as needed.

When you’re done, peel away the tape. What does the surface that was under the tape look like?

Now try swapping the two alligator clip leads on the battery terminals so the electrical current flows in the other direction. Dip the swab and place it against the metal. What happens now?

What's Going On?

As you will see, the stainless steel becomes cloudy and pitted wherever it’s touched by the cotton swab, but remains unchanged under the electrical tape. Congratulations: You’ve just etched metal via electrically induced corrosion.

Stainless steel gets its name from the fact that it doesn’t corrode—but that’s not strictly true. Like ordinary steel, stainless steel contains iron, which notoriously oxidizes when exposed to air, forming rust. Stainless steel, however, contains additional elements, notably chromium. Like iron, chromium does oxidize, but when it does, it forms chromium oxide, a sticky, protective, clear coating on the steel that prevents further oxidation.

Not many substances can break this protective seal of chromium oxide, but a chlorine ion (chloride, Cl-) can. The exact mechanism of action is complicated, but the short story is that the chlorine ion disrupts the oxide, allowing iron chlorides (FeCl2 and FeCl3) to be formed. Both are soluble in water and dissolve, leaving a pit behind. The iron then reacts with hydroxide ions in water, forming insoluble iron hydroxides and liberating the chloride ions to attack more iron.

This kind of etching will happen fairly slowly in saltwater without the addition of electricity, but electricity speeds it up mightily, for three reasons. First, the chloride and hydroxide ions are negative, and are attracted to the positively charged stainless steel. Second, electricity passing through water breaks the water molecules apart, creating extra hydroxide ions that can react with the iron and free the chlorides. Third, while iron is largely insoluble in water, the positive side of the battery removes electrons from the iron, converting it into iron ions, which are soluble.

Swapping the battery terminals inhibits all three of these effects. If you try this alternate arrangement, you’ll see little if any etching.

Electrical tape prevents contact with the chlorine and insulates against electricity, leaving the masked areas with less corrosion.

Going Further

To understand how important the chloride ions are, you can try other salts, such as potassium chloride (found in many table salt substitutes) or magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts).

If you’re more artistically inclined, some paint pens can cover the surface well enough to work as a mask. These allow for more detailed patterns, and can usually be rubbed off with brass brushes without scratching the steel.