Copper is one of the least reactive metals. However, it does react with a solution of ferric chloride and also copper chloride. This has been known for a long time and is a common way of etching copper.
Etching is a basic tool to reveal the grain structure of copper. The etchant attacks the polished copper surface selectively revealing the size and shape of the grains.
For the 2012 London Olympics, Thomas Heatherwick Studio designed the now world famous cauldron made from copper petals. Each one had the name of the competing country etched into the copper with ferric chloride solution.
The grain structure of a metal determines the properties such as strength and ductility. The image above is magnified 200 times and shows the grain structure of etched copper.
The chemistry of copper etching
The process has three reactions:
Equation 1 FeCl3 + Cu → FeCl2 + CuCl
Equation 1 will do the etching by itself because the metallic copper atom has been oxidised and becomes a copper ion within the copper chloride in solution, but a second reaction happens, making this a two-step redox reaction.
Equation 2 FeCl3 + CuCl → FeCl2 + CuCl2
The copper(I) chloride is further oxidised to copper(II) chloride
Just to complicate matters, the copper(II) chloride that builds up in the etching solution because of equation 2 also reacts with copper. So now we have two etchants working although we started with just one.
Equation 3 CuCl2 + Cu → 2CuCl
Mass producing circuit boards
Etching can only be used for prototype boards and for school or hobby electronics. It is difficult to control the process and very hard to make narrow tracks. Top of Page
Commercial boards use copper electroplating. A circuit board, with only a very thin copper layer, is made to become the cathode (negative) plate in an electroplating tank. Copper is then deposited on the tracks and builds up until they are thick enough. This process is the reverse of etching. To find out more, try searching for 'semi-additive process'.
Circuit boards in an electroplating machine. Cu2+ ions are attracted to the board and deposited as copper metal. The blue areas do not get plated as they are coated in a film called a resist. (Wikimedia/Innoquick.)
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- Copper atoms in a metal have no charge, but copper ions in solution as copper chloride have a positive charge. What has the copper atom lost to change it into a positive ion?
- In the electroplating process copper ions in solution are deposited on the tracks, which are connected to an electrical negative terminal to make them the cathode. 2+(aq) + 2e- → ?
Complete this electron half equation for what happens at the cathode: