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Pollution Prevention and Control Technologies for Plating Operations

Section 3 - Chemical Recovery


3.5.4 Technology/Equipment Description General Flat Plate Cathode Units Wire Mesh, Expanded Metal and Reticulate Cathode Units High Surface Area Cathode Units Other Equipment/Operational Considerations

3.5.4 Technology/Equipment Description

This subsection contains names and/or descriptions of commercially available electrowinning equipment that is manufactured and/or sold by vendor survey respondents or discussed in the literature. This is intended to provide the reader with information and data on a cross section of available equipment. Mention of trade names or commercial products is not intended to constitute endorsement for use. General

The typical electrowinning system consists of a tank that holds the electrolyte, sets of anodes and cathodes, a pump for transferring solutions from a feed tank to the electrolyte tank, rectifier, and controls.

Most electrolyte tanks are manufactured from polypropylene, although one of the surveyed manufacturers (ref. Eco-Tec file) also used lined steel tanks. The tanks range in size from approximately 10 to 1,500 gal. Rectifier output amperage ranges from approximately 25 to 5,000 amps (ref. vendor files), with the smallest units used primarily for precious metals (e.g., Au, Ag, Rh) recovery (ref. vendor files and 111).

The three most common types of electrolytic metal recovery equipment use either: (1) parallel flat plate cathodes, (2) reticulate cathodes; and (3) fibrous or high surface area cathodes. Generally, the parallel flat plate cathode units are used with concentrated metal solutions, the reticulate cathode units work over a wide range of concentrations, and high surface area cathode units are used exclusively with solutions containing dilute metal concentrations.

Various materials are used in the fabrication of anodes and cathodes. Until the 1960's, graphite and lead alloys were the most preferred anode materials. However, their high overpotential requirement and degradable nature presented significant drawbacks. More recently, anodes are commonly being manufactured of titanium and niobium and coated using the solid phase roll bonding method with precious metals, metallic oxides and/or their alloys and fluoride resistant metal composites (ref. 128). These types of electrodes are generically referred to as dimensionally stable anodes. The advantages of the newer anodes over the lead alloy anodes include: (1) produce higher purity product (deposit); (2) low oxygen overpotential increases current efficiency; and (3) corrosion resistance provides higher durability and stability.

Most commonly, flat plate, wire mesh and expanded metal cathodes are fabricated from stainless steel, reticulate cathodes are metal coated foam and high surface area cathodes are fabricated from carbon fibers. Additional details of cathode design are discussed in Sections through

Exhibit 3-36 indicates the different materials used for electrode fabrication by the four manufacturers that responded to the Vendors Survey for their most common applications. It also includes other types of materials identified in the literature and known to be in common use. Flat Plate Cathode Units

The flat plate design is often referred to as the conventional method of electrowinning because of its long standing role in the plating industry and as well as other industries. Conventional electrowinning equipment is found in a variety of configurations. The basic design consists of a tank containing alternating flat sheets of cathodes and anodes. Commercially available electrolytic recovery units, used for waste treatment and recovery, have total cathode surface areas ranging from 1 ft2 to 200 ft2. Such units are extremely small in comparison to those used for primary copper production. An average copper refinery producing 500 tons per day of copper utilizes approximately 2.6 million square feet of total electrode area (ref. 349). A packaged recovery unit generally is supplied with a reactor tank or cell, copper bussing, cathodes, anodes, rectifier, current controller, recirculation pump, internal piping, and valves.

With the parallel flat plate electrode units, the recovered metal is removed in strips or slabs and can be sold to a refiner or used in-house by electroplaters as an anode material. Several variations of the conventional electrowinning process are used. Variations in design are typically aimed at overcoming electrode polarization and low ion diffusion rates which reduce recovery rates in low concentration solutions. This is typically achieved by reducing the thickness of the diffusion layer through agitation of the solution or movement of the cathode.

Flat plate electrowinning units are usually operated on a batch basis, although continuous configurations are also in use. With a batch operation, a solution containing metal ions is added to the electrowinning cell tank or continuously circulated from a side tank and a D.C. electrical current is applied. As the recovery process proceeds, metal ions are plated onto the cathode and the solution becomes depleted. Typically this process is halted when the deposition rate drops below a given point or when the metal deposit thickness reaches approximately 1/4 to 3/8 inch. The plated metal sheets can then be pealed from the cathode and reused or sold. It is possible for the plated deposit to envelop the cathode, making removal nearly impossible. This problem can be overcome by employing a technique termed current shadowing that gradually reduces the current density at the outer edges of the cathode plate. Another method is to use non-conductive edge strips. However this may result in the production of dendrites at the juncture of the edge-strips (ref. 349). Wire Mesh, Expanded Metal and Reticulate Cathode Units

The wire mesh, expanded metal and reticulate cathode designs are aimed at increasing the surface area of the cathode. The wire mesh and expanded metal (appearance of floor grating) types are usually fabricated from stainless steel. Reticulate is a term used by at least one manufacturer of electrowinning units to describe their cathodes (ref. Eltech file). The term reticulate, which means having veins arranged like the threads of a net, accurately describes the appearance of this type of the cathode. The manufacturer also describes the reticulate cathode as a "foam metal cathode" (ref. 105).

The metalized surface of the reticulate cathode is rough and therefore has a greater actual surface area than its geometric surface. The manufacturer indicates that the surface area is 10 times greater than the apparent area. The higher surface area permits use of the units at lower metal concentrations than possible with conventional flat plate cathodes of the same size. One user of this technology (PS 196) indicated that it treats cadmium to below 5 mg/l, but that a significant concentration of residual cyanide remains. A diagram of a reticulate cathode electrowinning system used by nine survey respondents is shown in Exhibit 3-37 .

The wire mesh and expanded metal types are used as anodes in a plating bath after they have been plated with metal in the electrowinning unit (ref. 130). The reticulate cathodes are not reusable. When they are fully coated with metal, they are either sent off-site for sale as scrap or are discarded, depending on the type and purity of the deposit and the ability of a reclaim site to deal with the non-metallic core of the cathode. Operations where the cathodes are discarded are referred to as extractive methods of electrowinning (ref. 421).

Vendor provided data for the electrowinning treatment of a copper cyanide bath using a reticulate cathode design is shown in Exhibit 3-38. Operating data for a reticulate cathode unit provided by the Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center (Port Hueneme, CA) are graphically displayed in Exhibit 3-39. These tests were performed on a printed circuit board line over a time period of 432 hours (18 days). The electrowinning unit is a Retec Model 6 (21 ft2 of reticulate cathode surface area). Exhibit 3-39 (a) shows the copper concentration in the drag-out rinse tank (56 gal) during the test period (same set-up as EW configuration EW-1a, Exhibit 3-32). The highest concentration measured in the drag-out rinse during the test was 64 mg/l Cu. The copper concentration invariably fell to less than 1 mg/l overnight and during any idle period of a few hours duration. During one segment of the test, the copper concentration fell from 16 mg/l to 1.5 mg/l in 2 hours; during another segment, the copper concentration fell from 25.7 mg/l to less then 1 mg/l in 5 hours. The data suggest that for the conditions present at this facility, the copper concentrations will generally remain below 60 mg/l in the drag-out rinse and will reach 1 mg/l or less within approximately 5 hours or less after plating has ceased.

A reticulate and disposable cathode is often used for gold electrowinning. A small commercial unit, operating with only 25 amps output, is shown in Exhibit 3-40. The cathode of this unit is placed directly into a small drag-out tank. This unit is applicable to the recovery of most precious metals. It was used by four respondents to the Users Survey. The metal deposited onto the cathode is recovered chemically and/or thermally (dissolved in acid from cathode, precipitated, then melted or simply melted from the cathode) (ref. Gold Bug File). High Surface Area Cathode Units

High surface area units are used in rinsing operations, where low concentrations of metals are desired. The advantage of maintaining a lower equilibrium concentration is two fold; first, the percentage of material recovered is increased and second, the free rinse after the recovery rinse may be sufficiently dilute to be sewered without treatment. High surface area units extract the metal onto cathodes made of fibrous material such as carbon. The high surface area allows for metal removal at solution concentrations much lower than flat plate cathode types and even the reticulate types. The fiber cathode is regenerated by passage of a strip solution through the unit and reversal of the current. Plating solutions can sometimes be used as the strip solution and returned to the bath for reuse. More commonly, the concentrated metals in the strip solution are removed by a second electrolytic unit, employing conventional electrowinning.

One commercially available carbon-fiber cathode system employs a three dimensional flow-through type assembly, consisting of carbon fibers woven into layers of fabric secured to the electrical distribution feeder sheets in a plastic coated frame (ref. 128 and Baker Brothers file).

The high surface area units have been mostly applied to recovery of metals from the rinses of cyanide based plating processes (e.g., cadmium, copper, zinc, gold and silver). These units remove metal ions to low concentrations and also oxidize the cyanide in the rinse water. Other applications noted in the literature include: copper etch, electroless copper, acid gold, acid silver, tin-lead fluoborate and tin-lead sulfate solutions.

Cyanide oxidation with HSA units can be performed with the addition of sodium chloride electrolyte to the rinse, although the practicality of the process is not widely accepted. With this method, the chloride ions are oxidized to chlorine at the anode and react with cyanide in the rinse (ref. 39). Other Equipment/Operational Considerations

Various design methods are used in commercial equipment to achieve agitation and reduce the impact of concentration polarization. One manufacturer (ref. Eco-Tec file) advertises the use of convection air agitation that directs a uniform curtain of fine air bubbles across the face of the cathode and thereby bringing a constant supply of fresh solution to the cathode surface. According to the manufacturer, the improved agitation permits close anode to cathode spacing (1 in.) which reduces the IR (ohmic) resistive voltage drop across the cell, resulting in lower energy consumption. It also reduces the overall size of the electrowinning unit for a given cathode area requirement. Another manufacturer uses a fluidized bed design to achieve agitation (ref. BEWT file). With this design, mesh metal electrodes sit in a bed of inert glass beads, which is fluidized by the action of the pumped electrolyte. The scouring action of the beads against the mesh electrodes unit provides agitation to reduce concentration polarization and improves the quality of the deposit. Due to the mesh design, the deposit cannot be mechanically removed from the cathodes. Rather they are placed into specially designed anode bags and put into plating tanks, where they function as anodes. This equipment is advertised for recovery of nickel, nickel-iron, zinc, cadmium, silver and gold. Most of the electrowinning units manufactured for silver recovery for use in the photographic industry employ a rotating cylindrical cathode. Rotating the cathode provides the needed agitation at the interface between the cathode and the solution.

Several types of controls are available with electrowinning units. Inexpensive units usually have just an on/off switch as the only means of current control. Such equipment may be satisfactory if the solution variables remain relatively constant. Many units have variable current control and a meter to indicate current flow in the solution. Sensor probes are available on some units which will automatically adjust the current to the metal concentration. Microprocessor controls are also offered by many manufacturers.

Nickel, although it is one of the most frequently plated metals, has traditionally not been recovered by electrowinning. This is partially due to the fact that alternative technologies exist for nickel recovery, but is also due to the difficulty of the nickel electrowinning process. The recovery of nickel using electrowinning has become more common in recent years owing to research and development. The reason for the difficulty with nickel is that the pH of the electrolyte (typically a sulfate media) will drop as the electrowinning process proceeds due to the electrode reaction (electrolysis) that produces hydrogen ions. As this occurs, the metal deposition rate will decrease and hydrogen production will continue to increase. For this reason, it is necessary to control the pH of the electrolyte. A nickel recovery system employing ion exchange and electrowinning is shown in Exhibit 3-41. With this process, the electrolyte is continuously circulating from the cell to an adjustment tank where the critical operating parameters are controlled. This includes caustic addition for pH control. Another reference suggests the use of ammonia for adjusting the pH of Watts, Woods and sulfamate nickel baths. Note that the overall recovery system in Exhibit 3-41 includes the recovery of metal from both electroplating and electroless plating processes. A selective ion exchange column is used prior to electrowinning to separate the nickel from the chelates contained in the electroless bath and rinses.


Exhibit 3-41. Electrowinning System Applicable to Nickel Plating Operations

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