Aluminum Alloys for Anodizing

Anodizing the Aluminum Series

While aluminum is the most common metal to be anodized, not every grade of aluminum alloy receives this type of processing. As time passes, aluminum oxide naturally forms on the surface of aluminum, creating a layer of corrosion resistant protection. This layer not only halts continued oxidation and corrosion, it also helps reinforce the metal from the hardness of aluminum oxide.
However, this oxidation develops most successfully on pure aluminum – and pure aluminum is limited in its usage due to being a relatively soft and weak metal. Alloying the metal will give it greater strength and durability, but those properties come at the price of affecting aluminum’s ability to oxidize. Anodization is a convenient method of producing a thin, even layer of protective oxide on aluminum alloy.
Because anodization uses the metal’s aluminum content to form this anodic oxide layer, in theory any type of aluminum alloy can be used for this process. But some types of aluminum alloy have much greater chances of producing a successfully anodized piece. Due to the different element combinations in alloys, the anodizing of some series will produce much stronger and aesthetically appealing products than others.


Expected Results of Anodizing Aluminum Series
1xxx Series
This series covers pure aluminum, or aluminum with such tiny amounts of other elements that it can be considered virtually pure. 1xxx series can be anodized, but the pure metal remains weak and can be easily damaged. With or without anodizing, 1xxx aluminum is not strong enough for most structural applications.

2xxx Series
The primary alloying element for 2xxx is copper, which produces a very hard and strong type of aluminum. Anodization does not offer much additional protection, because the copper impedes the development of an anodic layer. The processing also gives the metal a yellow tint which consumers generally find unappealing.

3xxx Series
Manganese is the main alloying element in this series, and results in a layer of good-quality anodization. Unfortunately, the anodic layer is likely to be an unattractive brown tint that can vary from piece to piece, making it difficult to match when using multiple sheets in a project.

4xxx Series
Like the 3xxx series, the main alloying element in 4xxx causes the metal to turn an unappealing color after anodizing. 4xxx is alloyed with silicon, and this results in a dark gray anodized aluminum with sooty black patches. These blotches are very difficult to remove, so when 4xxx is anodized, it is generally used in architectural applications.

5xxx Series
This series is alloyed with magnesium, and is well-suited to anodizing. Once complete, the anodic layer is transparent, strong, and offers long-lasting protection. However, the chemical composition in some grades of 5xxx aluminum should be examined carefully, because some elements within may make anodizing a bit tricky. If the magnesium content is very high, or it contains over 0.1% silicon, the oxide layer may appear streaky.

6xxx Series
Both magnesium and silicon are the alloying agents in the 6xxx series, and these aluminum grades are considered to be excellent candidates for anodizing. The anodic oxide layer is clear and strong, as long as the alloy’s magnesium content is kept below a certain percentage. The strength of anodized 6xxx aluminum makes it a good choice for structural and mechanical applications, but its attractive finish means it can function well for aesthetic purposes too.

7xxx Series
Zinc is the primary alloying element in 7xxx series aluminum, and it takes well to the anodizing process. This series is already known for being some of the strongest types of aluminum, and anodizing increases that quality even further. The only risk comes if the chemical composition of the alloy is high in zinc. For 7xxx grades with heavy zinc content, the otherwise clear oxide layer can turn brown.

What is Anodizing?


One of the greatest advantages of aluminum is its natural resistance to corrosion. Ferrous metals such as steel are highly vulnerable to corrosion due to their iron content; iron atoms react with oxygen to produce rust, which wears away and damages the metal. Aluminum atoms react even more quickly to oxygen, but its oxide doesn’t flake off as iron oxide does. Aluminum oxide is quite hard and difficult to remove from the metal’s surface, so it become a natural layer of protection from oxygen permeating the metal underneath.
However, this natural oxidation takes some time to occur – and manufacturers understandably want faster results to produce corrosion-resistant aluminum for sale. This is where anodizing comes into play: this electrochemical process enables oxide to form much more quickly than it would on its own. Unlike paint or plating, which can chip or wear away, the anodized surface layer is fully integrated with the metal itself to provide long-lasting protection.

The Anodizing Process
Anodizing is a multi-step process, but at its most basic it can be described as highly controlled oxidation. By treating the metal and applying an electric current, the aluminum atoms are prompted into an accelerated interaction with oxygen. The end result is a metal surface that is evenly and completely anodized, with a high degree of corrosion resistance.
These steps include:
1. Cleaning: A thorough cleaning must be done to prepare the aluminum for the processing. Either an alkaline or acid-based cleaner is used to remove any surface grease or dirt from the metal.

2. Pre-Treatment: The benefits of anodizing can be both functional and aesthetic. During processing, dyes and other treatments can be applied to create a more attractive appearance in the final product. To modify the metal’s finish, two procedures can be done as pre-treatment:

a. Etching: To achieve a matte finish, heated sodium hydroxide solution is applied to the aluminum. Sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, is an extremely caustic substance capable of corroding metal. The solution strips away any minor surface imperfections, leaving it smooth and matte.

b. Brightening: Mirror-finish aluminum is created by treating the aluminum with a concentrated mixture of phosphoric and nitric acids. Similar to the lye solution, the acids corrode away the metal’s top layer along with minor imperfections. Once complete, the result is smooth, shiny metal.

3. Anodizing: The cleaned and pre-treated aluminum is then submerged in an electrolyte solution. Anodizing requires electricity, and an acid solution provides a boost in conductivity. As the electric current passes through the tank containing the aluminum and solution, oxygen ions are released from the electrolytes and interact with the aluminum to form a layer of aluminum oxide. The process is carefully monitored to achieve the degree of oxide thickness for the desired product.

4. Coloring: To produce colored anodized aluminum, four different methods can be used. Since this is done during the anodizing process, the color will be highly resistant against fading, scratches, and other wear. Generally this is done through these four methods:

a. Dye: The anodized metal is immersed in a dye and lye solution.

b. Electrolytic coloring: An electric current sent through an electrolyte solution the dye to the aluminum’s surface.

c. Integral coloring: This process combines anodizing and coloring into one step to anodize, color, and seal the aluminum.

d. Interference coloring: The aluminum is treated with sulfuric acid and then soaked in dye.

5. Sealing: Although freshly anodized aluminum has the corrosion resistance of aluminum oxide, sealing offers an additional layer of protection. During the processing, the various chemicals used will leave microscopic “pores” open on the metal’s surface. Left unsealed, contaminants can be absorbed more easily onto the surface during storage, risking corrosion or discoloring. Once the pores in the anodic film are closed by applying a final seal, anodized aluminum will be highly resistant to scratches, abrasions, and color fading.