Second place: MRI of Electroplating

Dr Joshua Bray
Postdoctoral researcher in the group of Dr Melanie Britton


It was in the Birmingham Jewelry Quarter in 1840, minutes away from the present-day University of Birmingham, that George and Henry Elkington were awarded the first patents for electroplating. Their methods used electricity to dissolve and deposit precious gold and silver as coatings on other metals, but they sparked a revolution in industrial metal finishing that presently touches nearly every area of science and technology—from medicine, to telecommunications, to aerospace engineering, and beyond.

Now, 175 years later, current advances in electroplating require even deeper, more detailed understanding of the chemistry as it occurs. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a powerful modern technique, and just as it is used in medicine to image the structure and function of the human brain, it can also reveal the workings of an electrochemical cell. This graphic shows a cell containing a copper strip, or "electrode", that is being dissolved and electroplated on a metal wire inside a glass test tube (left). As electric current flows, the copper dissolves and enters the liquid as electrically charged ions. These changes in composition generally cannot be seen by the eye, but the MRI signal (bottom) contains hidden information about the dissolved ions, and these make the cross-sectional MRI images (top) "light up" as copper dissolves and drifts from the strip to the wire.

The Britton group is using MRI to investigate state-of-the-art electrochemistry that will achieve better coatings, greener and safer processes, and a wider variety of electroplated metals than ever before.