Episode 5: Transitioning Hexavalent Chromium to Trivalent, Part 1

In this episode of On the Line, Products Finishing editor-in-chief Scott Francis sits down with Mark Schario, executive vice president with Columbia Chemical to hear about the latest innovations in trivalent chromium plating technology.
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Columbia Chemical’s Tricol Reclaim is said to bring cost-savings to decorative trivalent plating by allowing reclaim of trivalent chromium solution.

Photo Credit: Columbia Chemical

Recently the California Air Resources Board (CARB) proposed aggressive deadlines for a transition from hexavalent chromium plating to trivalent chromium. Discussions around hex chrome regulations are not a new challenge for the community, but this latest round of proposed regulations accelerates the timeline for plating operations in California.

While many finishers are not ready for this shift and hoping to delay implementation of these rulings, investigation what a switch to trivalent chrome means and the hex chrome alternatives that are available is a good idea. 

trivalent chromium, electroplating


In this episode of On the Line, PF delves a bit into the history of trivalent chrome, how it performs compared to hexavalent chrome and some of the reservations that platers have for making the switch. The discussion is centered around an interview with Mark Schario, executive vice president with Columbia Chemical (Brunswick, Ohio), who offers some background on trivalent chromium and talks about tri-chrome innovations, including the company’s latest tri-chrome technology TriCol Reclaim.

Columbia Chemical says its Tricol Reclaim brings cost-savings to decorative trivalent plating by allowing reclaim of trivalent chromium solution. Traditionally the buildup of counterions within traditional trivalent systems has limited reclamation, yet Tricol Reclaim’s formulation prevents the buildup of counterions.

Transcription from PF’s Interview with Mark Schario

PF: So Mark, I wanted to talk a bit about hexavalent chrome and regulations continue to drive more interest from platers to switch from hexavalent to trivalent chrome. Can you talk a little bit about the history of this shift and the point where we are today?

MS: Yeah, well, I sure can. I guess if you go back, gosh, probably 25 years. You know, originally trivalent came out because of its really its operational advantages. As far as no burning and no whitewash and good coverage. But as things move forward, and the regulations came into play, we see the switch really starting to go forward fast now.

And there's a few reasons why this is happening. First of all, we got reach, they're banning the use of hexavalent decorative chrome plating. And that's going into effect because they now feel that trivalent chrome is a viable alternative to decorative hexavalent chrome.

And then of course, as many out there are aware the PFAS that's just really wound up into a real problem for the electric players out there, where they have to monitor the PFAS being discharged. And it's such low amounts that's allowed. It's really saying don't use it in a way unless you can somehow recapture everything which you can.

And then of course OSHA has always been in this mix. You know, as far as exposure to the employees that are working around as hexavalent chrome it's very toxic. And we all know that carcinogenic and it's just driving up the cost because now they have to increase their exhaust because they the PFAS of course is regulated so they have to maintain them levels for the employees as far as The permissible exposure limit DL, and it's just driving the cost way up. And then finally, again, EPA, of course, the EPA has always been involved. And of course, they're putting out new regulations with the PFAS is really driving the switch to trivalent chrome.

PF: From a performance perspective. Can you describe how trivalent chrome compares to hexavalent?

MS: Yeah, I sure can. Gosh, we've done a lot of studies with this. On fact, recently US CAR  also did a study on this. But let me just back up a little bit. Trivalent chrome has been used in exterior applications for at least 20 years. And I've been involved with that was on the over the road trucks used on bumpers, and actually the exhaust stacks. And again, you know, it started way back then, because of the operational advantages.

I guess my point is, from the performance perspective, it's been proven, real world conditions in the field that is comparable to hexavalent chrome. And then also, recently, a little study that us car did, where they evaluated trivalent chrome to hexavalent chrome, they asked actually looked at a couple different systems.

And one of them was a sulfate based, one of them was a chloride based driving system. And then they also ran hexavalent, and actually put panels on cars and put them out there in the real world. Of course, they did all their, I guess, accelerated testing, whether it be cas, actually, they measured color, too.

But the thing that they found was that trivalent chrome, particularly chloride base chrome, like the TriCol performs better than hexavalent chrome in high chloride corrosion conditions. And many of you know this term, the Russian mud test, there's also a ASTM test method. For that, trivalent chrome definitely outperforms hexavalent, and also the sulfate based systems. So I guess to kind of summarize it all up, trivalent chrome performs as good as hexavalent chrome in normal conditions and performs better and high chloride corrosion conditions.

PF: So performance aside, are there some other benefits to trivalent over hex chome? And, you know, with all this said, what are some of the reservations that some platers may have in making that switch?

MS: Yeah, sure. I guess, going back to my original statement, I'll, as far as why they became popular in the first place was it's really its operational advantages. First of all, covering power, trivalent chrome does not burn. So you can actually turn the current up and get the chromium deposit into the recessed areas a lot better than hexavalent chrome.

And especially to the platers, out there with return automatic machines. Trivalent chrome can tolerate train interruptions. So you can literally plate apart, pull it up out of the bath, look at it and put it back in and start plating again. With hexavalent chrome, that would be a disaster. Another important, I guess, operational advantage is trivalent chrome is microporous, or micro cracked, as played in, depending on the thickness. So I can see in the future where with exterior type performance for the OEMs probably will end up doing away with a microporous nickel. 

In other words, you get porosity from the chrome itself. You don't need a nickel layer under the chrome to induce porosity. So that'll make it a lot simpler for the platers.

And then finally, I guess I’ve got to bring this up. From a waste treatment standpoint, Trivalent chrome has about 18 grams per liter, chrome metal in it, where hexavalent chrome has 200 grams per liter chrome metal on it. So right out of the bat, you have 10 times less chrome, in the plating baths. So of course, that equates to a lot less waste treatment costs,

PF: reservations that some some platers may have in making switch: are those kind of cost related or what what are the reasons that that folks may still say they want to use hexavalent?

MS: I think, I think probably three main things here for reservations. I guess the first one is fear, having done it before, not sure what to expect, scared, something will go wrong, and it'll interrupt their production or, you know, obviously affect their customers. The latest one, that's really I think slowing things down is just getting all the OEMs to agree to switch. I think most of the customers we approach 80% of customers, you know, would be fine. But they have that one customer that says, you know, they're, they're not sure they'll accept it. So, but that's all changing now. There's a lot of activity going out there to move the OEMs forward, and a lot of the OEMs are being proactive, and I can probably get into that in a little more detail later if you want. But then the final one you brought up was cost.

Yes, hexavalent. chrome's a commodity, you know, yeah, yeah, add chromic acid to the tank. When you switch driving on chrome, you have to use proprietary additives. And they do cost more from the initial makeup cost from hexavalent chrome. But that cost issue has now went away. There's alternatives out there. And when you look at the full picture of the cost, you can see that trivalent chrome can actually be the same or cheaper than hexavalent chrome.

PF: As things evolve, new solutions are out there that address some of these concerns of cost or whatever. Can you talk about trends that you're seeing in a little bit more detail?

MS: Yeah, to kind of go over this, we just come out with a new system. It's TriCol Reclaim quad based system. But what's unique about this process is that you can reclaim it. There's also some performance advantages to this new process. So the process reclaim allows you to recapture the rinse waters after the tri chrome plating, and then bring them back to the original plating bath.

In the past, there was some counter ions in the system that just made that impossible. So we've developed a way to make the additives to allow the player to reclaim the solution. And that really reduces the cost for the plater. And like I mentioned earlier, when you factor in reclaim, it can actually be cheaper than hexavalent chrome.

PF: So what was the real impetus for this development of this this particular solution? Was it was it to address costs? Or was it environmental concerns? Or is it just a little bit of both? I mean, imagine that reclaiming this stuff allows for less waste. And also, you can reuse it. So really, what what did you guys set out to do? Was it just a combination of those factors?

MS: Yeah, and there's a there's a little history here too. Probably 12 years ago, I was working with a pretty large plater real top notch plating company. And they decided to start reclaiming the trichrome and date they set up a really nice, nice system to reclaim the rinses.

And, gosh, their chemical costs went down about 50% when they did this, but unfortunately after about four years, I mentioned earlier these counterions built up in solution the plating rate started slowing down. So I guess since then, I've always been thinking about some sort of solution to this, you know, especially seeing that the trichrome markets really starting to explode.

And of course, the players can't afford to pay anymore because their customers don't want to pay any more for the plate, you know. So it was something that was always on our mind. And, sure, it took a little work to figure out how to do it. But there are less than added benefits that that we weren't even counting on when we purify the chrome.

When we actually did performance tests, we found that with cast testing, salt spray testing, even the color whiter, all the performance improved over all the other systems out there on the market. And that was something we really honestly didn't expect. But once it got out there in the field, and the customer started trying it, they started reporting back to us that they got better cast ours better salt spray. And they didn't even need a post step after the trichrome, like they did with the other competitive processes.

PF: So you just touched on this a little bit. But wondering like any any case studies that you have so far, or any evidence that you've seen, or the benefits, or is a yielding what you were expecting what you wanted to see.

MS: Yeah, actually, it's it's actually exceeding what we were expecting. We had a very large plastic plater evaluate the process for us. And they actually had run some other chemistries there, of course, and, you know, we're always trying to define, you know, a new solution for them.

And they reported back to us, for instance, by cast testing, and I mentioned that earlier, was that some of the competitors were getting less than 48 hours on cast unless they had a post up while they were getting 60 hours cast with our process, without any post up.

And, Scott, the reason I bring up the post up is the post step, I'm talking about hexavalent chrome. So, you know, it seems silly to use trivalent chrome plating and then afterwards, put a hexavalent dip on it.

With our process, you don't need that hexavalent tip and you still get your 60 hours of cache performance. And then the other thing that was a big surprise to us was the abrasion. It has more abrasion resistance than the other tri chrome's on the market passes 5000 strokes.

 It also passed the carwash test, just some minor hairlines where the other tri chrome's had some significant scratches. So we feel there's maybe some sort of hardness or lubricity advantage with our new process. And then another one that just recently was reported to us as we're passing this nickel leach test, with our process where it would been kind of trouble similar to try chrome's in the market. So it's great in that respect.

And then finally, this last one, gosh, it's get any gray hair over the years is a color. You know, we're we're up around 80 on the color right now. And to give you a comparison, hex chrome's at 83. So it brings it real close to the hexavalent chrome as far as color and kind of a relationship is three units or below, it's pretty hard for the eye to pick that up. So someone like me can probably put apart next to each other and look at it in a couple different directions. And I can maybe tell the difference, but to the average consumer, it's really hard to tell a color difference now. So really, I think what they're trying to reclaim were taken care of that color objection to

PF: Obviously you've been an advocate for trivalent chrome chemistries for a while, what do you think the future holds for both hexavalent chrome and travaillent chrome?

MS: Right now? There's probably, I'd say 90% of the market still hexavalent chrome 10%. trivalent, I'll give you a little bit of, I guess, background activities that are going on. So it'll, I guess, paint a pretty good picture of the future. US CAR Gosh, two years ago, put tri chrome and  there were quality standards CQA 11 added all the requirements in there.

US CAR’s actually been very proactive in doing some real world testing a travaillent, calm, kind of they've done some real good studies on it on respect to color that I just mentioned.

Along that line ASTM’s working on witness test methods for driving column because it is an ally. And he OEMs want to know what the actual thickness of the driver on chrome is, and again, US CAR’s participating in this and been a big help.

But I guess I would say, Gosh, next three or four years, it's going to swing drastically. I, a lot of people have both right now tri chrome and hex chrome, because they know that it's coming and they want to get used to running it. And I see more and more people, you know, adding tri chrome to their lines.

And if they're building a new plating line, they're adding multiple trichrome tags for white and all the different colors you can achieve with tri chrome that you can't with hex chrome.

So I would say with the proven viability, that tri valence definitely viable for replacement hexavalent chrome that it's going to shift fast. One more thing, the California Air Resource Board, it's called CARB. They are looking to replace hexavalent decorative chrome plating in California. And there's been many calls about it. They've been gathering data from multiple sources, and they are going to move forward with making that switch.

PF: Well, Mark,this has been really insightful and given us a lot to think about I know this conversation is been one that's ongoing in the plating community. So I appreciate your your insights on this.


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