Q: What role does pH play in electrolyte solution when anodizing titanium?

April 20, 2011

This question from Jack is a good one. I hadn’t really considered it before, and finding information on it online is either tricky or expensive. In short, I don’t know.

I have used electrolytes with a wide range of pH (acidity and alkalinity) but had not been looking for the differences. Some of my favorites are phosphoric acid (pH = 1.7), ammonium phosphate (4.2) , and tri-sodium phosphate (12). Quite different pH’s, but all slam that phosphate ion against the titanium anode and drop off an oxygen atom. Borates work fairly well, too. I’ve read that alkali sulfates can be used. But personal experience says, stay away from nitrates and chlorides.

According to some guidelines/requirements for anodizing titanium medical implants, a strong alkaline should be used. I suspect that this is to guarantee that nothing living can be in the solution.

According to one for-fee article from 1985  (Studies on anodizing of aluminium in alkaline electrolyte using alternating current) found “Electrolyte pH was found to affect the growth of anodic films considerably.” But I didn’t buy it to see how. This article is not quite to the point because it a) was about aluminum, b) they used alternating current, and c) it focused on only part of the pH spectrum.

If anyone has played with pH in anodizing titanium, please let me know if you notice any anodizing differences by pH.

Q: Is the Color Layer Hypoallergenic?

April 17, 2011

Marlene asked:

I’m desperately trying to find a solution to my recently-developed metal allergy as I LOVE my earrings. Titanium seems like a great option to try, but I am wondering, what is the colored coating composed of? Is there anything in that I could be allergic to?

As I explain on pages such as A short article on the physics of Anodized Titanium Color, the color layer is pure titanium dioxide. Just oxygen bonded to the surface of the metal creating a material that has been used for artificial “Titania” diamonds.

Thus this layer actually is the hypoallergenic coating that makes titanium safe. The “silver” color has a thin layer of the oxide on it, whether I want it or not. Titanium spontaneously grabs oxygen from air or water to protect itself. When anodizing or heat coloring, the higher the voltage, the thicker the protective layer becomes. But there is no practical difference for hardness or sensitivity, as the thickest layer (green) is about 0.00000003 inches thick.

I use a simple phosphate detergent as my electrolyte, then soak the ear hooks in clear water. In the 30 years since I started doing this I have had only two customers who were too sensitive even for titanium wires. I suspect it was a non-chemical tactile or contact sensitivity; the rubbing or pressure itself was causing the reaction.

Some people claim that niobium is even better for sensitive ears than titanium. They are chemically similar, and involve the same method of coloring. It’s been discussed before here: Hypoallergenic: Titanium versus Niobium

I suggest trying both, as a spare pair of wires is cheaper than another shipping charge.  Shop my Ear Hooks.