The Detroit Post
Friday, 15 October, 2021

How Does Rust Electrolysis Work

Maria Garcia
• Sunday, 06 December, 2020
• 7 min read

Here’s the overview: Submerge the tool in a solution of baking soda and water, connect a battery charger, and let it sit overnight. It’s better for the tool, especially if you’re concerned about its value if you don’t hit it with sandpaper or a wire wheel.

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This, and the ease of doing it, makes electrolysis the perfect answer for restoring old tools. Electrolysis provides a very easy way to get rust out of a tool’s nooks and crannies.

You’ll see it go through the rust removal process here and, in future stories, get to follow along as it’s restored and tuned up. It’s sound, but has a lot of surface rust on it, and is unusable in its current condition.

It’s best if the anode surrounds the tool so the electrolysis can happen from all sides. The anode will get eaten up by the electrolysis process, and will need to be replaced after being used a few times.

You’ve got to have a good connection or the process won’t work well. You may have to clean a small section of the tool with sandpaper to make certain you have contact.

Add one tablespoon of baking soda or washing powder (either one will work) per gallon of water. Connect the clips from the battery charger to the leads on the tool and anode.

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With the charger unplugged connect the positive to the anode and the negative to the tool. Don’t let the connections from the charger touch the electrolyte solution.

Wearing rubber gloves, use a fine Scotch Write pad to remove the sludge from the tool. Use a soft bristle brush to get into the spots you can’t reach with the pad.

The vat of electrolyte solution is pretty benign stuff but will burn your lawn if you dump it all in one spot. Electrolysis is a very effective method for removing rust from ferrous items, without causing noticeable damage.

Electrolysis has been used to separate many elements from impurities present in their natural form, since the 17th century. Most notably, Martins van Arum’s electrolytic generator in 1785, which effectively separated tin, antimony, and zinc from their respective salts.

This simulates the interchange of ions between the negatively-charged metal and a positively-charged anode, eventually getting rid of all iron oxide. Although removing rust with electrolysis on a large-scale can prove tedious and require complicated machinery, home users who need to clean rusty tools can do the same thing quite easily.


This process is good for antique collectors too, as electrolysis does not remove the patina that is very necessary to maintain the appearance and price of the article. Another advantage that electrolysis has over brushing, grinding, or other conventional rust -removal methods, is that none of the original iron or steel gets removed, and the process is usually not caustic or noisy, besides being comparatively inexpensive.

Unlike other methods, electrolysis can clean rust in the smallest of corners and crevices. This is because electrolysis can create volatile oxygen and hydrogen gas, and sometimes even toxic fumes.

Don’t touch the liquid electrolytic solution when the power is on, to avoid getting shocked. Any spills on the skin or eyes should be washed immediately, and medical treatment should be administered if necessary.

Washing soda Car battery/battery charger (12 volts) Strong plastic container (big enough to hold the rusted article) Plate steel/graphite (large chunk) Charger cables, with safety clamps Ammeter (if using a car battery and not a charger) Wire brush Scotch cleaning pads Distilled water First prepare the electrolyte liquid solution, which is made with the ingredients of washing soda and distilled water.

Similarly, attach the other black clamp to the rusted object, and the negative battery/charger terminal by the other end. If the reading is significantly higher than 2 amps, or if you see signs of smoke, unplug it instantly.


If there is a lot of rust, a reddish layer of scum will form on top of the solution. During this period, the anode will slowly transfer its molecules to the other object, and will gradually lose shape or become coated with rust.

If you find the anode has become too dirty and is disturbing the ammeter reading, disconnect and clean it before fixing it back. However, it needs to be thoroughly wiped dry immediately, or a thin new layer of rust will start forming on it.

If the process suddenly stops working while the rust removal procedure is still underway, check the electric connections. Don’t try to clean the corrosion of copper, bronze, silver, or lead with this procedure.

If this procedure is performed carefully and safely, it is surely a superior way to clean rust from such objects, making it an important process for every homeowner to know. I had read about this several times, and finally decided to give it a try on a recent project.

This was a small setup, and could easily be modified into a large one for bigger parts. I could easily see a 10 gallon fish tank and battery charger for cleaning up some vintage tools.

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Making my first Intractable was harder than playing home chemist. This is a fantastic way to remove rust and oxidation from steel and iron.

It is not recommended for brass, aluminum, copper or exotic metals and alloys. Your anode is your sacrificial lamb in this process, and gets connected to the positive/red/hot side of your electric supply.

The amazing process of electrolysis will erode the anode away over time. I think in a large set up a piece of flat steel or maybe some rebar would work well.

* the black film can easily be cleaned off with a slight abrasive such as a scotch write pad * make sure you treat the newly cleaned metal asap since it will easily and quickly begin to rust again.

So the word electrolysis is a combination of two terms and means to break a bond or take apart using electricity. I believe they are Latin terms, lysis coming from a Greek word meaning to “release”.

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This is a very simple explanation, if you wish, you can find more complex details in science books, or on the Internet, etc. It's these electric charges that cause certain atoms to want to “stick together” in certain combinations.

Oxygen and the iron in the steel stick together to form rust. This gives them a positive or negative charge because there is no longer a balance between the number of electrons and protons in an atom.

The solution made with water and washing soda is simply to make a safe, simple solution that will allow the electricity to work through it and not interfere with the process or produce chemicals that would be unsafe. When oxygen is reduced, or accepts electrons, it makes oxide, O--.

The electrodes will be submerged in the water and washing soda solution. One electrode will be called the “anode” because it will be caused to have a positive electric charge.

The anode is hooked to the positive wire of the battery charger. The bubbles you see coming from the anode are oxygen that resulted from the oxidation of water.

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The cathode is connected to the negative wire of the battery charger. Two things are reduced at the cathode, water and the rusty iron.

Rust electrolysis should be done in a well ventilated area so that explosive concentrations of hydrogen and oxygen are not reached.) The rusty metal takes on electrons and is no longer attracted to the oxygen atoms, and the bond is broken.

If this process is done on a large scale (for example, the trailer frame shown on my pages) a lot of water is lost to “reduction” in the process and needs to be replenished. Magnetite is an intermediate product in the reduction of rust to iron metal.

So once your parts are cleaned or removed from the solution, you'll want to rinse and brush them off to remove the loose iron, dry them quickly and completely, and protect them with primer or other rust preventative.

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