The sulfidation process of sterling silver in different corrosive environments : impact of the process on the surface films formed and consequences for the conservation-restoration community
Background Precious objects made of silver and/or its alloys tarnish and become black when exposed to ambient atmospheres containing moisture and ppb-amounts of H 2 S. Such objects usually contain small but variable amounts of copper as alloying constituent and this affects the corrosion process due to a preferential oxidation of copper. However the visual appearance of the formed tarnishing layers on different types of silver alloys is very similar. Therefore, conservators-restorers are confronted with the problem that in some cases certain cleaning techniques are very effective while in other similar cases the removal of tarnishing layers is unsatisfactory. Since cleaning experiments are not allowed on genuine objects, many investigations use artificially corroded dummies instead. In order to evaluate the representativity and reproducibility of this often used methodology, differences in morphology, microstructure and composition of the sulfide layers on sterling silver generated by different sulfidation methods were analysed. Results Sterling silver samples were artificially aged in five different environments. The samples exposed to uncontrolled ambient air at different locations (e.g. residential and laboratory environments) showed different corrosion rates and corrosion colours. Three accelerated ageing methods were executed in a gaseous or liquid environment under controlled conditions. These tests showed different results in morphology, microstructure, composition, thickness and the interface between bulk and corrosion layer. A first accelerated sulfidation procedure in a Na 2 S solution alternated with exposure to air, resulted in a fast corrosion rate and an even corrosion layer formation with several S-species. A second series of sulfidation in a controlled gas environment of H 2 S and SO 2 developed a thin but uneven corrosion layer, mainly consisting of oxides. A third corrosion methodology used was based on the thioacetamide method. This resulted in an even and relative thick corrosion layer, comparable to the Na 2 S/aeration sulfidation system. However, the interface between the corrosion layer and the bulk is importantly different, showing severe voids. Conclusions The corrosion layers generated by five different experimental sulfidation series on identical prepared sterling silver coupons were clearly different from each other. Analyses demonstrated that the composition and microstructure of the corrosion layers were strongly dependent on the sulfidation method used and copper was found to be an important element present in all sulfide layers analysed. Therefore, artificially corroded sterling silver is not necessarily representative for naturally tarnished historical objects and the extrapolation of the cleaning results obtained on dummies to historical objects must be performed with care. Keywords: Cleaning evaluation; Silver alloy; Sulfidation; Copper enrichment; Silver enrichment; Heritage; Conservation-restoration
Source (journal)
Heritage science
3(2015), p. 1-15
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E-only publicatie
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Publications with a UAntwerp address
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Web of Science
Creation 17.08.2015
Last edited 02.12.2017
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