Tables for
Volume C
Mathematical, physical and chemical tables
Edited by E. Prince

International Tables for Crystallography (2006). Vol. C, ch. 3.5, pp. 175-176

Section Chemical and electrochemical thinning solutions

N. J. Tighe,a J. R. Fryerb and H. M. Flowerc

a42 Lema Lane, Palm Coast, FL 32137-2417, USA,bDepartment of Chemistry, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, and cDepartment of Metallurgy, Imperial College, London SW7, England Chemical and electrochemical thinning solutions

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The principal requirement of the thinning solution is that material is removed from the sample surfaces in as uniform a way as possible to produce flat, polished, and clean surfaces. Thinning is carried out until perforation of the foil occurs at which time the edges of the perforated region should be sufficiently thin for electron microscopy. In a limited number of cases such thinning can be obtained chemically using a suitable acid in an aqueous or organic solvent. Comprehensive lists of chemical and electrochemical thinning solutions appropriate to a wide range of metals and alloys are given in the general references (Metals Handbook, 1985[link]; Edington, 1976[link]; Hirsch et al., 1965[link]; Thomas, 1962[link]; Goodhew, 1972[link], 1975[link]). It must be stressed that in many cases mixtures of highly oxidizing acids are employed in organic solvents and the mixing of the solutions can be hazardous unless undertaken under carefully controlled conditions involving the slow addition of acid to solvent at low temperatures. The storage of such solutions can also produce a fire and explosion hazard and all safety aspects must be thoroughly considered before preparing and using these materials. In spite of continued reference to them in texts, under no circumstances should solutions containing acetic anhydride be employed since they can present extreme hazards and safer alternatives exist. The use of face shields and fume-cupboard facilities are mandatory for the preparation and use of all polishing solutions and protective gloves are required in cases where strong acid solutions are employed.

Where several alternative polishing solutions are available, selection should include consideration of safety and storage aspects (inorganic acids in organic solvents being generally the least hazardous), the speed and quality of the thinning/polishing action, and the nature of the surface film that the solution produces on the finished thin foil. The surface film is particularly important where microanalytical studies are undertaken since the chemistry of the surface film may differ markedly from that of the underlying metal (Morris, Davies & Treverton, 1978[link]).

Chemical polishing solutions are very simple to use since they require only immersion of the sample in the stirred solutions at an appropriate temperature for thinning and polishing to take place. They can be employed also to thin non-electrically conducting materials such as silicon. However, the thinning action can be stopped only by removal of the sample from the acid and thorough washing of the sample surfaces. Since this operation takes a finite time, it is difficult to stop thinning in a precise manner.

Electrochemical thinning involves the application of an anodic potential to the sample and a cathodic potential to a second electrode in contact with the solution. Electropolishing occurs over a limited range of voltage and temperature and attack can be greatly diminished or halted by switching off the power supply. Thus, more precise control can be obtained over the termination of thinning and automatic control circuitry can be devised. The typical anode current/voltage (i/V) relationship at a fixed temperature under potentiostatic conditions is shown schematically in Fig.[link] .


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Typical anode current/voltage relationship at fixed temperature under potentiostatic conditions.

In region I, etching of the sample occurs. In region II, a stable polishing condition is achieved and the current density is insensitive to voltage variations. It is associated with the presence of a viscous liquid layer on the sample surface. Protuberances on the surface extend further through this layer and polish faster hence resulting in their removal and the rapid establishment of a smooth polished surface. Variation in temperature can seriously alter viscosity and the thickness of this layer and increasing temperature reduces the voltage range of the polishing plateau. Region III, which occurs at high voltages, corresponds to breakdown of the solution and gas evolution. It is necessary to establish i/V curves experimentally for any combination of metal and electrolyte. True potential–current relationships can be obtained by potentiostatic techniques (West, 1970[link]), but in practice determination of the applied-voltage range over which polishing occurs using an anode/cathode geometry appropriate to the thinning technique to be employed is generally adequate. Since local ohmic heating of the sample can raise the temperature substantially above that of the bulk solution (Cox & Mountfield, 1967[link]), it is necessary in either case to stir the solution in a controlled manner and to note the effect of stirring-rate variations.

At the practical level, it is pertinent to note that electropolishing to produce thin foils is very much an art rather than an exact science because of the presence of many uncontrolled or unsuspected variables in the process. Firstly, a completely fresh solution often polishes poorly because it lacks an adequate concentration of the metal ions in solution; it is often worth adding a few drops of an exhausted solution to a fresh batch to remedy this. Secondly, solutions become exhausted, at least partially, as a result of selective evaporation, concentration of a metal-ion species, and contamination, particularly by water. Quite apart from the hazards of long-term storage, it is unwise to use solutions once these processes occur.


Cox, A. R. & Mountfield, M. J. (1967). Specimen temperatures during electropolishing of thin films for electron microscopy. J. Instrum. Methods, 95, 347–349.
Edington, J. W. (1976). Practical electron microscopy in materials science, Vols. 1–3. London: Macmillan.
Goodhew, P. J. (1972). Specimen preparation in materials science. Practical methods in electron microscopy, edited by A. M. Glauert, pp. 3–180. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Goodhew, P. J. (1975). Specimen preparation in materials science. In Electron microscopy and analysis. Vol. 1, Part 1. London: Wykeham Publications; New York: Springer Verlag.
Hirsch, P. B., Howie, A., Nicholson, R. B., Pashley, D. W. & Whelan, M. J. (1965). Electron microscopy of thin crystals. London: Butterworth.
Metals Handbook (1985). Metals Park, Ohio. American Society for Metals.
Morris, P. L., Davies, N. C. & Treverton, J. A. (1978). Effects of a surface film upon thin foil microanalysis. In Developments in electron microscopy and analysis 1977, edited by D. L. Misell. Inst. Phys. Conf. Ser. No. 36, pp. 377–380.
Thomas, G. (1962). Transmission electron microscopy of metals. New York: John Wiley.
West, J. M. (1970). Application of potentiostats in corrosion science. Br. Corros. J. 5, 65–71.

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