Stainless steel can corrode in service if there is contamination of the surface. Both pickling and passivation are chemical treatments applied to the surface of stainless steel to remove contaminants and assist the formation of a continuous chromium-oxide, passive film. Pickling and passivation are both acid treatments and neither will remove grease or oil. If the fabrication is dirty, it may be neccesary to use a detergent or alkaline clean before pickling or passivation.
Pickling is the removal of any high temperature scale and any adjacent low chromium layer of metal from the surface of stainless steel by chemical means.
Example of good post-weld practiceWhere the steel has been heated by welding, heat treatments or other means, to the point where a coloured oxide layer can be seen, there is a chromium depleted layer on the surface of the steel underneath the oxide layer. The lower chromium content gives lower corrosion resistance. To restore the best corrosion resistant performance, the damaged metal layer must be removed, exposing a fully alloyed stainless steel surface. Mechanical removal may leave abrasive or other particles embedded (interfering with corrosion performance) or may be impractical, so chemical means are usually employed.
Procedures incorporating pickling solutions of nitric (HNO3) and hydrofluoric (HF) acids remove the scale and the underlying chromium depleted layer and restore the corrosion resistance. Pickling solutions also remove contaminants such as ferrous and ferric oxide particles. Pickling solutions other than mixtures of nitric and hydrofluoric acids exist and can be used for specialised applications.
Pickling pastes, where the solution is mixed with an inert carrier, are commonly used to treat selected areas such as welds.
Pickling involves metal removal and a change or dulling in the visual brightness of the metal.
Electropolishing is a useful alternative to pickling. Metal removal is achieved, but usually results in a bright, smooth and more highly corrosion resistant finish.
Pickling and passivation use strong acids, and normal precautions for safety should be followed. Consult Materials Safety Data Sheets and product packaging for detailed advice.
Further sources of information on both pickling and passivation can be obtained by contacting ASSDA.