60-Second Science

Atom-Thick Layer Keeps Silver Shiny

A technique for depositing atom-thick protective layers on silver could safely keep works of art from tarnishing. Gretchen Cuda Kroen reports

Getting out grandma’s good flatware for the holidays? Then you’re probably dreading the time it takes to polish all that silver. Now imagine you’re in charge of the Silver Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

Fortunately for art conservators everywhere, scientists are hard at work on a process that may help keep silver shiny—and with a lot less elbow grease. Researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park, together with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, are using nanotechnology to prevent that nasty sulfide tarnish from forming. The method, called Atomic level Deposition, coats silver objects with a protective oxide film in layers just a single atom thick. Researchers discussed it at the recent 2012 AVS International Symposium, which covers materials, interfaces and processing. [Amy Marquardt et al., Atomic Layer Deposition Films as Diffusion Barriers for Silver Artifacts]

The technique is still being worked out and hasn’t yet been used on priceless works of art. But researchers say that it offers a number of advantages over current methods. For one thing, conventional polishing can remove underlying silver. If the new method measures up, museum curators will surely take a shine to it.

—Gretchen Cuda Kroen

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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