July 2018 · 3 minute read

Chrome has long been a fixture in electroplating, thanks to its durability, corrosion resistance, and a bright, shiny finish strongly associated with luxury. But a growing number of studies and concerns around the health risks associated with chrome plating have led unions and Health and Safety depart-ments to put pressure on manufacturing companies to find an alternative to chrome. One forerunner in the search is electroless nickel plating.

Nickel, a plentiful and cost-efficient metal, is also prized for its excellent corrosion resistance, durability, and process time, with its superior uniform coating meaning less nickel can be used to evenly coat an uneven surface, making it a more cost-efficient solution than chrome, which would require more metal for an even coat. Galling tests have shown that parts coated with electroless nickel plating last twice as long as those plated with chrome. Most appealingly, electroless nickel coating lacks the numerous health risks associated with chrome plating.

The health risks associated with hexavalent chrome plating have been gaining attention since the 1930s, with a growing number of workers who have been employed in chromate production falling ill with respiratory and sinus-related illness and disease, including cancer of the lungs and sinus. In fact, multiple studies have shown that there is a strong association between hexavalent chromate production and cancer, and it was this association that was the subject of the hit film Erin Brockovich, based on a real-life court case. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified inhaled hexavalent chrome as a known human carcinogen. Liver diseases have also been shown to be associated with hexavalent chrome.

Electroless nickel plating is increasingly favoured by Health and Safety officials as a replacement for chrome, with environmental protection organisations also pointing to its more eco-friendly production process as a reason for manufacturing companies to switch. With electroless nickel offering far more corrosion resistance, it is a popular choice in a variety of industries, including marine engineering, automotive engineering, and aerospace engineering. Nickel plating companies also point out that high-quality chrome plating will often use nickel as a base layer anyway, with the primary function of the additional chrome plating being its luxurious appearance and recognisable name brand. This is because chrome is porous, and without a layer of a metal like nickel beneath it, it will not be waterproof.

The aesthetic of a bright chrome finish is an iconic look, associated particularly strongly with vintage cars. However the finish of electroless nickel coating is very similar, with the only significant difference being a slightly warmer hue than chrome. Nickel has a comparable sheen and brightness to chrome.

With many major manufacturers forgoing chrome plating in favour of an alternative, and Health and Safety organisations and departments putting increasing pressure on engineering industries to make the switch, it seems as though electroless nickel plating has the power to replace chrome indefinitely.