• Electroless nickel deposition

Thorough rinsing after each processing step is essential. After the electroless nickel layer has been completed, the part may be plated conventionally with any desired electrolytic coating (Ref 2, 57).

Degreasing. When necessary, light soil or fingerprints can be removed from plastic parts by immersion in a mildly alkaline soak cleaner for 2 to 5 min. A typical degreasing solution contains 25 g/L each of sodium carbonate and trisodium phosphate and is operated at 50 to 70 °C (120 to 160 °F). Alkaline cleaning is not always required, provided the plastic is carefully handled after molding and is not allowed to become excessively soiled. Fingerprints and loose dust or dirt are normally removed by the etching solution.

Etching solutions for plastics are typically strongly oxidizing acids that cause a microscopic roughening of the part's surface. These solutions also alter the chemical character of the surface and cause it to become hydrophylic. Etching not only improves mechanical bonding and adhesion of the coating to the plastic substrate, but also improves access of subsequent processing solutions to the surface. Most commercially used etching solutions are formulated with either chromic acid or mixtures of sulfuric acid and chromic acid or dichromate salt. These solutions are typically operated at 50 to 70 °C (120 to 160 °F) with immersion times of 3 to 10 min. Chromic acid based solutions are particularly effective with ABS plastics, but are also used for polyethylene, polypropylene, PVC, polyesters, and other common polymers.

Neutralizing. After the plastic has been properly etched and rinsed, it should be neutralized to remove residual chromium ions, which may interfere with subsequent catalyzation. Neutralizers are rinsing aids and are typically dilute acid or alkaline solutions, often containing complexing and reducing agents. Ionic surfactants are sometimes added to increase the absorption of the catalyst on the surface. Neutralizing solutions are normally operated at 40 °C (105 °F) with immersion times of 1 to 2 min.

Catalyzing. In order to initiate deposition of the electroless nickel coating on plastics, their surfaces must be catalyzed. This is normally accomplished by chemically depositing small amounts of palladium. The original commercial catalyzing procedures required two processing steps. In the first step, stannous chloride was absorbed onto the surface from a solution of SnCl2 and HCl. After rinsing, the part was immersed in a solution of PdCl2 and HCl, and palladium chloride was absorbed onto the surface. The stannous ions then reduced the palladous ions leaving discrete sites of metallic palladium. Currently, a one-step catalyzing procedure is normally used. For this, a solution of stannous chloride and palladium chloride in hydrochloric acid is used. The solution consists of tin/palladium complexes and colloids stabilized by excess stannous chloride. The chloride content of the solution is critical and must be carefully controlled. During immersion, globules of tin/palladium colloid absorb onto the plastic surface. After rinsing, nuclei of metallic palladium surrounded by hydrolyzed stannous hydroxide, are left attached to the surface.

Acceleration. With one-step catalyzation, a further step is required to remove excess stannous hydroxide from the surface and to expose the palladium nuclei. This step is called acceleration and is accomplished by immersing the part in a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid or an acid salt. The acid reacts with the insoluble stannous hydroxide forming soluble stannous and stannic chloride. After rinsing, there surface is free of tin and active catalytic sites are present. Acceleration solutions are typically operated at a temperature of 50 °C (120 °F) and are agitated with air. The parts are normally immersed for 30 to 60 s.

Electroless Nickel Deposition. Most electroless nickel solutions operate at too high a temperature for plastics. High temperatures may cause plastics to warp. In addition, the large difference in coefficient of thermal expansion between plastics and electroless nickel may cause adhesion failures during cooling from bath temperatures. Electroless nickel solutions for plating on plastics, thus, are formulated to operate at low temperatures--typically 20 to 50 °C (70 to 120 °F). These solutions are normally alkaline and reduced with sodium hypophosphite, although some DMAB solutions are also used. Ammonia-based plating baths are preferred because of their ability to complex excess palladium dragged in with the part and to avoid spontaneous decomposition. While most of these solutions are proprietary, some typical formulations (Ref 2) are:


Bath 1

Bath 2





Nickel chloride



Nickel sulfate



Sodium hypophosphite





Sodium pyrophosphate



Ammonium citrate



Ammonia, mL/L (fluid oz/gal)



Sodium hydroxide

To pH

Operating conditions

Bath 1

Bath 2




Temperature, °C (°F)

30-50 (85-120)

25 (77)

Typical plating rate, ^m/h (mils/h)





Plastic parts are normally immersed in the electroless nickel solution for 5 to 10 min to provide a uniform metal film about 0.25 to 0.50 pm thick. This coating is sufficient to cover the surface of the plastics and to make them conductive for subsequent electroplating. These deposits typically contain 2 to 6% P. After proper treatment the peel strength of 25 mm (1 in.) width strips of these coatings on plastics like ABS and polypropylene is on the order of 50 to 100 N (Ref 2, 57).

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