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Pollution Prevention and Control Technologies for Plating Operations

Section 3 - Chemical Recovery


3.5.6 Performance Experience

A partial summary of the User Survey data relative to electrowinning is presented in Exhibit 3-47. There are a number of general observations that can be made from these data and other data contained in the Users Survey database and literature:

  • The average satisfaction level for the electrowinning technology is 3.1 (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most satisfactory), which is lower than the average level rating for all recovery technologies. Fifty-six percent of the shops indicated that this technology satisfied the need for which it was purchased and another 15% indicated that it partially satisfied the purchase need. The following is a breakdown of the reasons why shops purchased this technology:
     To meet of help meet effluent regulations:..........38
     To reduce plating chemical purchases:................9
     To reduce the quantity of waste shipped off-site:...20
     To reduce wastewater treatment costs:...............20
     To improve product quantity:.........................1     
     Other (mostly to recovery valuable metals):..........8
  • The use of electrowinning for metal recovery generally did not impact production quality or the rate of production. The following responses were provided:
                   Product Quality   Production Rate
     Improved             0               1
     No Change           55              50
     Decreased            1               5
  • Most plating shops indicated that based on their experience with this technology, if given the chance, they would purchase the same type of equipment from the same vendor. The following is a breakdown of their responses:
     Purchase the same technology from the same vendor:....35
     Purchase the same technology from a different vendor:..4
     Purchase a different technology:......................13
     Do nothing:............................................4
  • The major savings from the operation of electrowinning were reduced treatment chemical use, reduced sludge generation and the value of the recovered metal (especially precious metals and to a lesser extent, cadmium).
  • Most of the respondents use electrowinning to recover metal from rinse water and incorporate drag-out (or drag-in/drag-out) tanks to concentrate the metals prior to electrowinning. The electrowinning system is either connected directly to the drag-out tank or the drag-out is periodically pumped to a side tank for electrowinning. Other configurations from the survey forms include: (1) an electrowinning unit recovered metal from a spray rinse (PS 184); (2) metal was recovered from a spent process solution (PS 039, PS 128, PS 164); (3) metal was recovered from a copper sulfate bath purge (i.e., used to control a build-up of metal concentration in bath) (PS 041).
  • Nearly 50 percent of the respondents' applications of electrowinning were used for cadmium recovery.
  • The most successful application of electrowinning appears to be precious metals recovery (based on the number of applications, the percentage of applications still in use, and the satisfaction level of the users). This includes the use of both commercial and home-made units. This is most likely due to the fact that noble metals are more easily recovered by electrowinning than common plated metals.
  • All the HSA units purchased between 1979 and 1983 were purchased from a single manufacturer (HSA Reactors Ltd.). The average cost of these units was $66,360. The high capital cost was probably tolerated at the time because these units were advertised as compliance technologies rather than simple recovery methods (PS 276). As such, they were intended to fulfill a portion of a plant's conventional treatment requirements. These units received an average technology satisfaction level of 1.4. Asked what they would do if given the opportunity to repeat the technology selection process, the eight users of this technology indicated:
     Purchase the same technology from the same vendor:.....0
     Purchase the same technology from a different vendor:..1
     Purchase a different technology:.......................5
     Do nothing:............................................2
  • Only one of these early HSA units is currently operating (PS 086) and that unit was extensively modified by the user by replacing the carbon cathodes with corrugated steel panels and by removing the heat exchanger and the cyanide destruct module. Some shops indicated that the performance of the HSA system was good, when it was operating (PS 012, PS 124, PS 276). Other shops reported complete dissatisfaction, e.g., "it has been a major expense and headache...too much downtime" (PS 086). Another problem cited with this equipment was the competing nature of the cyanide destruction and metal removal processes. As reported by PS 039, the cyanide destruction process reduced the technology's ability to remove cadmium. PS 086 also cited this problem and reported that they abandoned this portion of the technology.
  • Of the various "black box" technologies utilized during the late 1970's and early 1980's, a period when plating shops were installing equipment to meet the new Federal effluent standards, the high surface area units probably had a negative impact on the utilization of advanced technology. Following this time period, the plating industry moved in the direction of conventional treatment with sludge dewatering and dehydration and off-site metals reclamation.
  • Two HSA type units were purchased from a manufacturer other than HSA Reactors Ltd. in 1985 (PS 188). These are much lower cost units ($3,000) that are still in use and received higher than average satisfaction ratings.
  • Eltech International Corporation, a producer of reticulated cathode units, manufactured more of the electrowinning units reported in the survey forms than any other manufacturer. The average technology satisfaction level for these units was 2.9, slightly less than average. However, asked what they would do if given the opportunity to repeat the technology selection process, the users of this technology indicated:
     Purchase the same technology from the same vendor:....8
     Purchase the same technology from a different vendor:.0
     Purchase a different technology:......................1
     Do nothing:...........................................0
  • Some performance failures of the electrowinning technology can be attributed to misapplications by the user. This is especially true with the use of home-made units and units purchased from manufacturers' representatives rather than the manufacturer. For example, PS 128 purchased an electrowinning unit from a manufacturer's representative to recover copper, nickel and chromium (chromium cannot be recovered using electrowinning because very high concentrations of chromium are required for a deposit to form) from a spent nitric acid solution (inappropriate electrolyte). The user indicated that he intended to recover the metals and reuse the nitric acid. The supplier-stated capacity of the unit, according to the user, was 8 gpm (flow-through is an inappropriate application). The result was that "it did not work" and "it fumed." Another shop (PS 146) that modified an old commercial unit indicated that they could not determine the proper electrical settings for its use. They were using the unit with a 5 gpm flow-through of zinc cyanide rinse water (flow-through is an inappropriate application because it does not permit sufficient time for the metal to be plated-out). That same shop indicated in their survey form that they are planning to use their electrowinning unit in the future for chromium recovery.
  • Approximately 26% of the electrowinning units used by respondents were constructed in-house (where the manufacturer was not given, those data were not used in the percentage calculation). These units received a higher average satisfaction level than the commercial units (3.6 vs 3.1), although plating shops with home-made electrowinning units gave mixed performance reviews. The capacity and quality of the components that went into these units probably had a significant bearing on performance. Also, the lack of technical support available led to misapplications and unsolvable problems. For example, PS 025 spent $15,000 on their equipment in 1986. This unit was still running at the time of the survey (1993) and the shop gave the unit a satisfaction level of 4. On the other hand, PS 036 constructed a unit in 1984 using components available in-house and purchased iridium coated anodes ($4,000) from an anode supplier. The unit had a 60 to 70 percent downtime, reportedly was labor-intensive and their efforts were abandoned in four months. This unit was applied to treatment of drag-out and spent bath (copper cyanide). PS 041 constructed a unit for $4,000 in 1990. Although this unit is still operating, it has a downtime of 20% and is ineffective in removing copper unless the copper sulfate concentration is 75 g/l or higher (unit used to treat bath purge, lower copper concentration and electrowinning discharge is returned to bath). PS 043 abandoned their home-made unit because of problems with conductivity and sluffing off of metal (zinc) from the cathode.

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