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The Next Generation of Phosphating Must Solve These Five Challenges

For those of us of a certain generation, we have watched the products we use and consume transform before our eyes.

Between technologies that have brought changes to anything we can hold, or that can hold us; or refinements to processes that have made these products cleaner, safer, and better, we live in an era where transformation is the rule – and not the exception.

However, look just beyond the surface of those EV-powered automobiles, smart devices, energy-efficient home heating and A/C systems, and kitchens-of-the-future, and you’ll find steel parts processed in much the same way as they have been for nearly 150 years.

Indeed, despite the promise of reducing our carbon footprint and producing our products in a more sustainable way, the gears, pistons, door frames, fasteners and hubs that are at the very essence of manufacturing are still processed in a manner that constitutes a “witches brew” of environmental risk.

Phosphating – the process of adding a layer of protection to raw steel by converting it to iron, magnesium, or zinc phosphate – is a pretreatment method that is done today using virtually the same method that British inventor William Alexander Ross conceived back in 1869.

Of course, when Ross first chemically converted the surface of steel, there was little attention paid to the potential hazards caused by the phosphoric acid that induces the reaction, nor the thick sludge that piles up as the surface is processed.

Today, consumers insist corporations act responsibly – adopting green methods at all phases of production. Additionally, competitive pressures have made it integral for manufacturers to continue to look for ways to produce products more efficiently to help them maintain their competitive edge.

All of this has placed tremendous pressure on industries to develop alternative technologies to the traditional phosphating process — and the resulting problems and byproducts that industrial manufacturers have come to accept and live with for more than a century. Experts predict that, for such a new technology to be widely adopted, it would need to address the five most substantial business challenges to those who use traditional phosphating in their manufacturing process.

1.      Sludge: This thick, moist substance has been a necessary evil of the phosphating process, costing significant resources and downtime for the cleaning of equipment and tanks. Additionally, the cost to dispose of this sludge can be prohibitive, particularly in the quantities it is produced. Experts say that the ideal new technology would reduce sludge output by 40 to 50 percent or more, and would facilitate the continuous removal of the sludge, virtually eliminating the downtime factor from the equation.

2.      Water Consumption: The current phosphating process requires multiple rinse steps that requires high volumes of water, and also produces a significant amount of wastewater that needs internal pre-treatment before it can be discharged to sewer systems. Scientists say that a new, more environmentally friendly process could be developed which would eliminate the need for rinses – and result in a zero-discharge system. 

3.      High Temperatures: The high temperatures generated by the phosphating process create incredible inefficiencies – requiring costly energy to heat process tanks up to 200°F.  The mists and vapors generated by heated tanks are hazardous for employees, requiring removal from the environment using ventilation. An ideal solution could potentially be developed, say engineers, that would allow for the operation of the phosphating process at room temperature, reducing energy consumption and eliminating ventilating equipment.

4.      Space: Zinc phosphating is a “production-line” process, requiring a large footprint to complete its cleaning, rinsing, activating, phosphating, a second round of rinsing, and drying steps – plus the addition of ancillary equipment to treat the waste; ductwork for ventilation; hoists to move baskets; and so on. Condensing this process to less than half the floor space of the current scheme, while producing equivalent volumes of output, is the “Holy Grail” of phosphating production – particularly when considering rising real estate prices and the attendant energy costs and other carrying costs related to physical plant.

5.      Color: Zinc phosphating typically has delivered a finished product that has a gray matte finish – requiring interim steps, depending upon the application. For fasteners, this often means dipping the completed part in a colored wax or other topcoats to facilitate the distinction of one part from another; for larger parts, it requires heavy coats of primer or finish preparation prior to painting. Engineers say a process can be developed which would allow for multiple primary base colors, including blue, green, red and yellow. This would eliminate the interim colorization step, in many cases, and also cut down on paint coats for larger applications.

Is there one company that can address these five challenges? Though it has been said that phosphating could never be “green,” could this be changing? Is it, in fact, possible to turn the phosphating process green, as well as red, yellow, and black?

Stop by Hubbard-Hall’s booth at SUR/FIN or send an email to:  PhosphatingTurnsGreen@hubbardhall.com to learn how phosphating will turn “green” this fall.