How to build a Reverse Electrolysis System
This article by Bradley "Brad" Williamson provides complete instructions and diagrams so you can build your own reverse electrolysis tank. Reverse electrolysis is the primary method used in conservation and preservation of treasures and artifacts
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How To Build a Reverse Electrolysis Tank
Reverse Electrolysis by Bradley "Brad" Williamson
Metal objects recovered from the sea need a special cleaning and treatment process. The exception to this is lead and gold, which due to their molecular composition, require no special treatment process. If metal items are not treated correctly they can disintegrate - especially iron.
Until you can proceed with a preservation treatment of the objects it is best to keep them submerged in water, preferably fresh water. Iron objects, such as cannons, are best kept in a solution of 5% sodium carbonate until they are processed in a preservation treatment.
When you are able to preserve the items the best method is Reverse Electrolysis. Reverse Electrolysis will clean and stabilize the metal to prevent any more chemical degradation of the item. To Build a Reverse Electrolysis Tank you will need
An electrolyte solution - sodium hydroxide (lye) or sodium carbonate (baking soda).
A container - anything from a small ten gallon aquarium (if the items are not too large and you want to view the cleaning process) up to a large plastic tank of several feet in length depth and width ( if you are treating cannons or anchors).
Clip on leads - these can be purchased from any electronic supply store such as Radio Shack.
A DC power source - a battery charger is an excellent DC power source.
An anode - anything made of stainless steel, a plate, a rod or even a large bolt.
Once you have all the materials, fill the container with the electrolyte solution. A ratio of about half a cup of lye or backing soda to three gallons of water is a good ratio for the electrolyte solution. Insert the anode into the container. Then attach the (+) positive lead from the DC source to the anode and the (-) negative lead from the DC source to the artifact. If you are using a battery charger start of with an initial setting of Six volts. You should start to see a slow to slight bubbling. If after several minutes nothing appears to be happening check the power source. However if you start to see a rapid stream of bubbles from the artifact you will need to slow down the process so you do not mar the surface of artifact and remove any valuable markings, such as the surface markings on coins (dates, assayer, mint markings, etc.). You can slow down the process by either using a lower voltage or covering some of the surface area of the anode with petroleum jelly.
Silver coins if they are only slightly blackened should be completed in a few minutes. If they are heavily oxidized it may take up to an hour at six volts or 30 minutes at twelve volts. If you are using a transparent container such as a fish tank you can watch the process and remove the items when they are finished.
Be careful to never turn of the source of DC current while the artifacts are still in solution. For example, you are leaving the house and do not feel comfortable leaving the items in solution and the electricity on when you are not there to watch it. If you turn of the source of DC current while the artifacts are still in solution the process will reverse itself and could create a mess.
This article gives a brief overview of the process of setting up and running a reverse electrolysis tank. It is by no means a complete analysis of the subject. For further reading and an in depth information on creating and running a reverse electrolysis tank I highly recommend The books:
Salvaging Spanish Sunken Treasure by Bob
Shipwrecks of Florida: a comprehensive listing by Steve Singer
Both of these books were used as reference material when writing this article.
Treasure Expeditions: treasure hunting, archaeology and shipwreck recovery