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How Electropolishing Benefits the Medical and Surgical Industries

Updated on July 18, 2013
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Going to the doctor of having surgery is a frightening experience for a lot of people. The prospect of infection is a very real fear, and hospitals have strict routines to prevent the spread of disease and germs. Doctors and nurses have to scrub their hands, use gloves, and use hand sanitizer, as do surgeons, and the tools that are used often go through processes like autoclaving and electropolishing—which is similar to passivation—to maintain their safety. I learned a little more about both of these processes recently when a family member told me they wondered how surgeons kept tools like surgical saw blades sterile, despite those tools having a lot of different surface heights. I found out that sterilizing these tools is a bit more involved than one might think, and that other tools like surgical staplers require extremely smooth surfaces within them in order to ensure the staples don't become jammed. Interestingly, though possibly not entirely surprising, autoclaving and electropolishing tend to go hand in hand when maintaining a metal tool's integrity and sterility.

Promoting Sterilization Through Electropolishing

Electropolishing, if you aren't aware, is the process by which metals are treated to brighten, deburr, and passivate materials all at once. Passivation is the process of making a metal less susceptible to corrosion, and electropolishing does this by immersing a metal part in a chemical bath, and electricity is introduced to the bath. The combination of chemicals and electricity treats the metal in a delicate manner, free of tumbling or rough handling, so small parts aren't damaged. The end result is a piece of metal or a tool that is deburred—extremely smooth due to the removal of irregular surfaces—extremely clean thanks to the removal of tiny dust particles and other foreign materials, and resistant to corrosion.

In the medical industry, autoclaving puts metals into a very corrosive environment—exposing metals to water—on a regular basis, so resistance to corrosion is key to maintaining these tools' longevity. Things like surgical saw blades and surgical staplers require extra care to ensure they continue working properly. Uneven surfaces can affect the way these tools work, and can be harmful. Surgical staplers must have smooth surfaces to ensure the staples can fire at a consistent rate without jamming. Saws are often marked with laser engraving to distinguish what part they are, and it's crucial that those laser etchings are flush with the rest of the blade. If the surface isn't completely smooth, it can compromise the sterility and may also be more susceptible to corrosion. The deburring process that takes place during electropolishing creates a uniform surface, which helps the blades stay sharp. Electropolishing service also removes any discoloration that resulted from laser etching, which gives the blade a bright appearance.

How Electropolishing is Used in Conjunction with Autoclaving

Autoclaving is the process by which tools such as surgical instruments are sterilized. Tools are placed in an autoclave bag, then put into an autoclave, where they are treated to highly-pressurized, high heat steam. The process holds the tools at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit for around 20 minutes, depending on what kind of material is being autoclaved. The way autoclaving ties in with electropolishing is pretty clear—when a product is completely smooth and deburred, there is no chance of foreign material embedding into the metal or glass and avoiding sterilization.

Metal finishing can also be used directly on the autoclaving device's parts. Since, as previously mentioned, the interior of an autoclave is hot and the tools within are treated with steam, the environment inside an autoclave machine is very corrosive to metals. As you probably know, metals exposed to moisture have a tendency to rust. When they have smooth surfaces thanks to passivation and electropolishing, however, they are much more resistant to corrosion. An example of a company that provides this type of a service is Able Electropolishing.

These two processes help benefit the medical and surgical industries by promoting the safety of the tools and instruments. Going to the doctor or having to get surgery still wouldn't be on my top ten list of ways to spend a Saturday, but at least now I'm more aware of the lengths the people working in these industries go to in efforts to ensure patient safety.

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