The Often Environmentally Harmful Electroplating Industry Gets A Green Touch

Mar 21, 2017

Nearly every piece of exposed metal in a consumer product has been electroplated in some way. It's the process of coating a metal with another metal to prevent corrosion. The most common coatings include chrome and cadmium, both of which are heavy metals that can be harmful to the environment.

In fact, the European Union has banned cadmium for many uses and it was chromium-tainted water that was involved in the case that made Erin Brockovich famous.

But LumiShield, based in Robinson Township, is working to replace those metals.

“We developed a technology that allows us to plate aluminum selectively on all sorts of objects in an environmentally friendly and inexpensive way that beats most of the existing technologies for creating anti-corrosion and decorative coatings,” LumiShield CEO Dave Luebke said.

Traditional electroplating with aluminum requires the use of toxic solvents and specialized equipment. But the company has found a more environmentally friendly method. LumiShield dissolves the aluminum in water rather than using solvents.

“Our Technology can be done in a bucket in the backyard,” Luebke said. “I keep threatening to neutralize our plating solution (it’s a little acidic) and drink it on a YouTube video, because I say that’s perfectly fine, but he’s worried about me.”

Luebke was referring to LumiShield chief technology officer Hunaid Nulwala who wasn’t quite sure that would be the best way to prove the technology’s green nature.

Dealing with the leftover traditional plating solution usually represents about 10 percent of the cost of the plating process. Nulwala said that’s not an issue for LumiShield.

“You can adjust the pH and that basically causes the aluminum to precipitate out of the solution,” he said. 

From there, the aluminum can be collected and the water discarded.

Since creating the process in a test tube two-and-a-half years ago, Lubeke and his team have ramped it up to a 3-liter tank. By this summer, he hopes to be using a 5 gallon tank.  That would allow them to plate something the size of a baseball.

By the end of the year, the goal is to be working in a 55-gallon tank, which Luebke said would be large enough to take it to market.

“Our business model is to actually sell the technology to existing electroplaters,” Luebke said. “We will sell them a licenses to use the technology and all the consumables they need to use their existing equipment and expertise to go from plating chrome and cadmium to plating aluminum.”

The consulting group Future Market Insights estimates the electroplating industry at $14.5 billion and growing. Luebke said his technology could replace much of that.

Once it cracks that market, LumiShield’s founders hopes to use its more environmentally friendly technology to plate specialized aluminum alloys that could serve applications aluminum alone cannot serve.

In this week’s Tech Headlines:

  • An assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Computational Biology Department has joined what has been described as an all-star research team investigating new ways to translate genetic findings into new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease. Andreas Pfenning will use computational techniques to comb through thousands of genetic sequences. School officials said Pfenning is also is developing new biological techniques to test the function of those human DNA fragments in the brains of mice. Researchers said they have identified 20 or 30 genetic sequences associated with dementia but believe there are potentially thousands of additional segments that could be involved.
  • The president of the embattled ride-hailing company Uber has resigned just six months after taking the job. Uber didn't say why Jeff Jones left but jones told the tech blog Recode that his values didn't align with Uber's.  The moves comes as several other departures including a top engineering executive and the vice president of product and growth.  Uber has also recently been hit by several controversies, including issues regarding sexual harassment, secrete programs to thwart government investigators and high-tech espionage of competitors.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.