How Are Metals Plated onto Plastics, Ceramics, and Composites?

We’ve written about tank plating on this blog before – the process of plating a metal onto metal items that have been placed into plating tanks. For that process to work, the items to be plated must be electrically charged – in other words, they must be made of metal.

So that leads to an interesting question:

How can metals be plated onto surfaces of non-metallic materials like plastics, ceramics, or composites?

You have doubtless seen non-metallic items that have been plated with metal – they are nearly everywhere. There are metal-plated disposable plastic drink cups, plastic radio knobs, toys with bright shiny metallic coatings, and many other items.

Let’s look at some of the ways that precious and other metals can be coated onto non-metallic surfaces.

Sputtering and Other Vacuum Processes

Scrap sputtering targets, like the one shown above, can contain gold, silver, platinum, palladium and rhodium, and can be refined and recycled by Specialty Metals.

Scrap sputtering targets, like the one shown above, can contain gold, silver, platinum, palladium and rhodium, and can be refined and recycled by Specialty Metals.

Sputtering is the process of choice today for depositing thin films of silver and other metals onto plastics, ceramics, and other non-metallic materials.  Sputtering is done in the vacuum chamber of a special machine, in which atoms are ejected from a metallic disc called a “target” onto the surface of the material to be coated. Sputtering is now widely used to deposit thin films of silver onto photovoltaic solar panels. (The good news is that used sputtering targets that have outlived their useful lives on production lines contain trace amounts of the silver or other precious metals that they contained. They can be profitably recycled by a qualified precious metals refinery.) Interesting: A variety of other vacuum-coating processes have long been used to coat plastic surfaces with aluminum and other metals; in those processes, atoms of the coating metal are dispersed into a vacuum chamber, where they adhere to the surfaces to be plated.

Electroless Plating

The word “electroless” looks like a misspelling, but it is actually a word that was invented to describe a chemical process that deposits a metal onto plastic. In it, the plastic items to be coated are “etched” by being immersed in a special chemical solution that prepares their surfaces for plating. The items are then immersed in a chemical bath that contains the metal that will be used to plate them. Interesting: Electroless plating looks a lot like tank plating, only no electricity is used.


Yes, ceramics and plastics can be electroplated with gold or silver.  It can be done after those materials undergo the process of electroless plating (see just above). Once they have a thin metallic coating, they can be tank plated, just as metal objects are. Interesting: The items that have been plated using this process are often quite durable. One example? Chrome-plated plastic door handles that are used on automobiles.


Two different spraying processes – arc and flame spraying – can be used to apply metallic plating to nonconductive surfaces. In most cases, a powdered form of the metal is heated and then sprayed, using special equipment. Interesting: Spraying technologies can be used to apply a metal coating to just one part of a ceramic or plastic item; just as a painting technician can mask off parts of an item so they receive no paint, parts of the item to be spray-plated can be masked and receive no coating.

Precious Metals Can Be Recovered from Plastic Items

In virtually all cases, metals that have been applied to inexpensive plastic items are not precious metals. (Think of the shiny chrome-like finish that is applied to the bumpers and other bright pieces that you will find in a kit for a model car.) If, however, you own a quantity of ceramics or higher-end materials that have a coating of what seems to be silver or gold – and you do not know exactly what they are – they could be a source of valuable precious metals that can be extracted by a qualified precious metals refinery. Why not call us at 800-426-2344 to learn more?

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Why Recycling Plating Tank Scrap Can Pay You More than You Expect
Why Money Can Be Found in Your Used Electroplating Supplies

The Next Time You Recycle Gold-Plated Items, Thank Luigi Brugnatelli

The art of modern electroplating was discovered in 1805 by an Italian chemist named Luigi Brugnatelli. In essence, he was tinkering with early battery technologies that had been discovered by his friend and compatriot Alessandro Volta. (Volta’s name, as you probably guessed, is the basis of the English word “volt.”) Brugnatelli noticed that quantities of gold could be deposited on silver items when they were immersed in a battery-like bath of electrolytic fluid. And he was off and running.

A portrait of Luigi Valentino Brugnatelli (1761-1818), the father of gold electroplating, from "Cenni su la vita di L. V. Brugnatelli" Biblioteca di farmacia (1836 gen, Serie 2, Volume 5)

A portrait of Luigi Valentino Brugnatelli (1761-1818), the father of gold electroplating, from "Cenni su la vita di L. V. Brugnatelli" Biblioteca di farmacia (1836 gen, Serie 2, Volume 5)

If you do a search for Brugnatelli’s name online, you will find a lot of biographical information, including an excellent history of his life on the website of Artisan Plating, a company that specializes in high-quality plating. (Artisan Plating is like a mirror image of Specialty Metals Smelters and Refiners. It specializes in applying lavish layers of gold and other precious metals to other metal surfaces, while we are a precious metals refinery that extracts them.)

Here are some highlights from the life of Brugnatelli, which we have adapted from the information on the Artisan Plating website and other online sources. We’re telling you his story because it could help you understand more about the value that could be found in the gold scrap and gold-plated items that you might own.

In 1805 . . .

Brugnatelli was the first person to use the process of electroplating. He applied a layer of gold to silver plates. For some reason, Napoleon’s French Academy of Sciences didn’t like the discovery or report on it in its publications. The Academy, which was the leading scientific organization in Europe, also stopped other scientific journals from reporting that Brugnatelli had discovered electroplating.

Until about 1845 . . .

Because Brugnatelli’s big news had been hidden, two cruder ways to plate gold onto other metals remained in widespread use. One – the more common and the more poisonous – was a process that used gold leaf and mercury to deposit layers of gold onto heated surfaces. Another was called water gilding, in which the object to be gold plated was immersed in a solution of gold chloride and water, with no electricity used. That technology could deposit only a thin layer of decorative gold.

In about 1839 . . .

Henry and George Elkington, two English scientists, independently discovered gold electroplating and started to use it commercially. At about the same time, Russians starting using it too. According to the Artisan Plating website, the process was first used in Russia to apply gold plating to metals that would be used in cathedral domes. The size of those electroplating tanks must have been pretty big!

After 1850 . . .

Tank electroplating became the method of choice for applying layers of gold onto silver and other surfaces, replacing the use of processes that exposed people to noxious mercury gas.

Brugnatelli finally had his day, even though he was not around to see his electroplating discovery gain almost universal application.

If Brugnatelli Were Alive Today . . .

He would sputter to see the way that gold sputtering targets are now used to apply thin, yet durable, layers of gold onto other metals. The thick layers of gold that he liked to apply to other metals are now nearly a thing of the past, at least in the way eyeglass frames and other items are coated with gold.

If you have gold items – especially gold-filled older items such as eyeglass frames and jewelry that is more than about 40 years old, they could contain valuable quantities of gold that are worth recycling. So do your used gold sputtering targets. To learn more, call us at 800-426-2344.

Related Posts:

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Georgius Agricola (1494-1555), Father of Modern Metallurgy
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Gold Refining: Why It Takes an Expert to Evaluate Your Gold-Plated Items
Ask a Gold Refinery - What’s the Difference between Gold-Plated and Gold-Filled Eyeglass Frames?

Why Precious Gold Can Still Be Recovered from Used Gold Sputtering Targets

If you have a number of used gold sputtering targets left over from plating operations you should toss them, right? “Used” means that they no longer contain gold, correct? So what is the point of sending them to a qualified precious metals refiner for recycling?

Don’t Be Too Quick to Toss Your Used Gold Sputtering Targets

As the diagram below illustrates, there is more to a gold sputtering target than just the target material – in the case of a gold sputtering target, that is gold. Even when most of the target material has been removed after the target has been used repeatedly, you still have quantities of other metals in the two surfaces below . . .

Diagram of gold sputtering targets, showing where other precious metals like silver or palladium may also be present and can be recycled profitably by Specialty Metals.
  • The bonding material (shown on the diagram as “solder”) – Depending on how your sputtering targets were manufactured, a number of valuable metals could still be found in this layer – even after your targets have outlived their production life. This thin layer most commonly contains silver – as a silver solder, as a component in silver-bearing epoxy, or in some other form. Granted, silver is not the most precious of precious metals, but if you have a lot of used sputtering targets, you could be sitting on a large quantity of the metal that could be well worth reclaiming.
  • The backing plate – They most often contain aluminum, copper, stainless steel, or even molybdenum. But in some cases, they can contain precious metals too, like palladium or cadmium. It is also possible that during the sputtering process, the exposed areas of backing plates might have become plated with small amounts of gold – and you certainly don’t want to toss that away.

How Can You Know the Value?

One thing for certain is that you cannot estimate the value of your used sputtering targets just by looking. They have to be tested with modern equipment by qualified technicians in a specialized lab. So if you have a batch of used gold sputtering targets and would like to know what they are worth, your next step is to call Specialty Metals Smelters and Refiners at 800-426-2344.

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Don’t Throw Dollars Away! How to Mine the Hidden Value in Used Sputtering Targets
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7 Strategies to Cut the Costs of Sputtering Targets and Precious Metal-bearing Manufacturing Supplies
Plating Primer: How Do Sputtering Targets Work?

As Gold Supplies Dwindle, Demand for Recyclable Gold Will Remain High

“The World Is Running Out of Gold,” a post that Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan wrote for Gizmodo, reports that most of the extractable gold that occurs in nature has already been mined.

Here’s what Campbell-Dollaghan reports . . .

Photo of a miner with a gold nugget used for everything from jewelry to dental scrap to circuit boards, which can all be recycled by Specialty Metals.
  • Mining companies are already digging deeper and deeper to find gold. Many of the places in the world where it lies close to the surface are found in arctic areas where mining is prohibitively difficult and costly.
  • Gold is getting scarcer. In one instance, a mining company had to blast away 100 metric tons of rock to extract one ounce of gold.
  • New finds are rarer. Back in 1995, 22 gold deposits were found that contained at least two million ounces of gold. There were only six such discoveries in 2010, and none in 2012.
  • The gold that’s in your cellphone might be the same gold that was in an ancient Roman or Greek coin. It might have gotten smelted into a bar a few hundred years ago, then used in jewelry, and finally used to make your iPhone or Android. Most of the gold that has ever been mined has been used over and over again.

Yet People Continue to Toss Gold Away

As we reporting in a recent post, as many as 89% of old smartphones are simply tossed by their owners, who don’t want to take the trouble to recycle them. Similarly, people toss old desktop computers, televisions, radios and other devices with printed circuit boards that contain small quantities of recyclable gold.

It doesn’t make much sense, does it? As gold supplies dwindle, people just toss it away.

If you have a quantity of old items that contain gold – from phones to jewelry to used gold sputtering targets – remember that they could be worth more than you think, even if they only contain small amounts of gold. Call us at 800-426-2344. With worldwide supplies of gold dwindling, the demand for this most fabled of precious metals is not about to go away soon.

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What You Need to Know about Recycling Used Magnetron Sputtering Targets

We’ve written about sputtering targets many times before on this blog, including this great explanation of how sputtering targets work. They can contain valuable quantities of precious metals, even after they have outlived their useful life in your coating operations.

Shown: scrap sputtering targets, which can contain gold, silver, platinum, palladium and rhodium, and can be refined and recycled by Specialty Metals.

But what about magnetron sputtering targets? Do they, like gold-bearing sputtering targets, contain valuable quantities of recyclable precious metals? Let’s take a closer look.

What is Magnetron Sputtering?

The first impulse magnetron sputtering (HPIMS) machines were introduced to the market in 2006. They are high-powered sputtering machines that are now widely used in many coating applications for one simple reason: They can apply very dense layers of thin films onto a variety of surfaces, most often ceramics, glass and plastic.

  • Magnetron technology is most often used to apply coatings to:
  • Automotive headlight housings and other reflective surfaces
  • Architectural glass
  • DVDs and CDs
  • Photovoltaic cells
  • Solar panels
  • Superconductors
  • Flat panel displays
  • Lighting surfaces
  • Medical testing devices

Magnetron sputtering machines are also sometimes used to “etch” or pre-treat surfaces that will then be coated using regular sputtering technology.

Here’s a very informative video about magnetron sputtering that was produced by Norfolk State University. If you watch until the end, you’ll see that the HPIMS equipment has been used to coat a glass slide with a thin conductive film.

What Metals Do Used Magnetron Targets Contain?

Used magnetron sputtering targets that were used to apply reflective coatings on glass most often contain quantities of silver and metal oxides, including zinc oxide, tin oxide, or titanium oxide. Yet it is worth remembering that used sputtering targets contain more than just the metals that they were used to deposit – they can contain other metals too, such as thin layers of silver or other metals that were used to bond the targets onto their substrates. If you have used sputtering magnetron targets and would like to know whether they can be profitably recycled, call the best precious metals refiners, Specialty Metals Smelters and Refiners, at 800-426-2344. We’ll be happy to help you recoup maximum dollars from the precious metals they may contain.

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Don’t Throw Dollars Away! How to Mine the Hidden Value in Used Sputtering Targets
Use an Organized Recycling Program for Sputtering Targets to Boost Your Company Profits by 10% or More
7 Strategies to Cut the Costs of Sputtering Targets and Precious Metal-bearing Manufacturing Supplies
Sputtering Targets: Four Great Educational Informative Videos You Can Watch on YouTube

Sputtering Targets: Four Great Educational Informative Videos You Can Watch on YouTube

If you would like to learn more about sputtering targets, you might want to spend some time searching for the term “Sputtering” on YouTube. You can get a great education quickly, thanks to dozens of excellent videos that you will find.

Here are four that we found to be very useful and informative:

Gold Sputtering Targets

This nine-minute video shows the use of a sputtering target to plate gold onto several materials, using a small desktop-sized sputtering machine.

Intro to Sputtering Process to Create Clear, Conductive Coatings

A very good 11-minute video that illustrates how sputtering targets can be used to apply coatings to glass.

Home Built Desktop DC Magnetron Sputtering Machine

This 10-minute video doesn’t have a narration, but the video still teaches a lot about how sputtering targets are used to apply metallic coatings.

Magnetron Sputtering Cathodes from Angstrom Sciences

Sputtering occurs when an ionized gas molecule is used to displace atoms of a specific material. This four-minute video describes how Angstrom Sciences, a leading manufacturer of magnetron sputtering technology, manufactures magnetron sputtering targets. Highly educational.