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Alkaline cleaners are specifically formulated chemical blends consisting of

alkaline salts, wetting agents and sequestrant (chelating) agents. They owe their
detergency, or cleaning ability, to the displacement of contaminants by surface-
active materials and alkaline builders. These constituents remove the
contaminants and allow them to be easily rinsed away.

The term "alkaline builders" covers a broad group of chemicals: caustic soda
(NaOH), caustic potash (KOH), phosphates, silicates and carbonates. These
chemicals supply the alkalinity for the cleaner. High-alkalinity products saponify
fats and vegetable oils into soluble soaps. These alkaline salts also neutralize
acidic contaminants and aid in dispersing oils.

Caustics (KOH, NaOH), the most common type of alkalinity builders, are highly
alkaline (pH 12 to 14). They saponify fats and work with surfactants to disperse
contaminants. This type of builder is not safe for use on soft metals like
aluminum and zinc.

Silicates provide medium alkalinity (pH 11 to 12.5) and contribute to detergency.


They inhibit attack on soft metals, but they become insoluble at a pH less than 10.

Phosphates have slightly lower alkalinity values (pH 9.5 to 11.5) and provide more
detergency than the other builders listed. They provide some protection for soft
metals and tie up hard water ions, preventing them from interfering in the
cleaning process.

Mildly alkaline carbonates (pH 9 to 9.5) are mainly used to neutralize acidic
contaminants. They also buffer solutions to maintain a specific pH range.

Wetting agents (surfactants and synthetic detergents) aid in removing


contaminants by lowering the surface tension of the solution, allowing the cleaner
to get under the contaminant and displace it from the metal surface. Once the
contaminant is in solution, the wetting agent creates an emulsion, preventing
redeposition onto the part being cleaned. Surfactants have one end that is soluble
in water (hydrophilic) and one end that is soluble in oil (hydrophobic). This
allows the surfactant molecule to create an oil-water emulsion that is easily rinsed
away. Cleaning principles. Soil is defined as matter out of place. Regardless of the
type or category, all cleaners remove contaminants from a substrate by one or
more of the following principles:

 solvent action - enables the cleaner to dissolve oils present on the metal
surface;
 saponification - chemically converts drawing compounds (organic oils and
fatty acids) into water-soluble soaps that can add to cleaning efficiency;
 detergency - surface active agents, or surfactants, reduce the interfacial
tension between solution and contaminant, enabling cleaning solutions to
better penetrate and displace contaminants from the metal surface;
 emulsification - surfactants in the cleaning solution suspend contaminants
in the aqueous phase for easy rinsing; and
 deflocculation - disperses contaminants into very fine particles that are
suspended in the cleaning solution. Materials to be removed are classified
into two general

categories: oil and particulate matter. Oil, by definition, is a petroleum-based


product. However, for discussion purposes, simple waxes, vegetable oils and
animal fats, which may have been applied to facilitate processing operations or
rust prevention, may be included. Particulate matter is finely divided
contaminants present on the surface of the substrate to be cleaned, including
smut, pigments, drawing materials and shop dirt.

Cleaner selection
To select a cleaner it is important to consider which metal(s) will be processed to
prevent attack of the substrate. This is particularly important with aluminum,
zinc and certain exotic metals.

The cleaner must be formulated to effectively remove the contaminants it will


encounter. Simple, light-rust preventive oils and water-soluble coolants are easily
removed with mildly alkaline cleaners at moderate temperatures. Waxes, heavy-
oil rust inhibitors and other durable corrosion prevention compounds require a
more aggressive product. Typically, a high-alkaline product with a good oil-
solubilizing surfactant package is needed in conjunction with high temperatures.

The cleaner must also be suitable for the mechanics of the operating system.
Immersion cleaners normally require different surfactant systems than spray
cleaners. Also, the use of chelates is often necessary to counteract the undesirable
effects of hard water salts.

Concentrate form also needs to be considered. Liquids are easy to use and can be
automated. Powders are usually added manually, but they are more cost effective
for most operations.

Rinsing
An important part of the cleaning process is the rinse stage. As the substrate
leaves the cleaner stage it carries spent cleaner, emulsified soils and other
contaminants. If not immediately rinsed, these contaminants can redeposit on the
part and become difficult to remove. The rinse must remove these unwanted
materials and not interfere with subsequent operations. Typically, a multi-stage
rinse is used to ensure all contaminants have been removed.

Caustics and silicates, two major ingredients of cleaners, are poor rinsers. On the
other hand, phosphate and phosphate blends along with blends of caustics and
silicates are relatively easy to rinse. Hot water can assist in rinsing; however, care
must be exercised so that drying does not occur just before the rinse tank. Double
rinsing is common, using either deionized water for spot-free parts or adding a
corrosion inhibitor to the final rinse if rusting is a problem.

Single stage: clean only, no rinse. This method should contain inhibition if parts
are ferrous steel. It should be skimmed frequently to remove floating oils,
extending cleaner life and preventing redeposition.

An immersion tank should be used for low-volume or batch work. An automated


cabinet spray washer is more efficient for low-volume batch work, while a
conveyorized spray is more efficient for high-volume, continuous production
work. Another equipment option is ultrasonic.

Two stage: clean and rinse. With this method, frequent skimming to remove oils
is needed in stage one. This extends cleaner life and prevents redeposition. The
rinse should also be skimmed and changed frequently, and a rust inhibitor may
be added as well.

An immersion tank, automated spray cabinet equipment with rinse cycle,


conveyorized spray, auger washer or ultrasonic equipment may be used.

Three stage: clean, rinse, rinse. This system can produce the cleanest part. Stage
one should be skimmed, while the stage two rinse should be kept clean by
overflowing. Stage three can use deionized water for spot-free parts and/or
incorporate a water-soluble rust inhibitor if needed.

Equipment options include immersion tanks, automated cabinet spray equipment


with three indexed cycles (wash, rinse, and conditioned rinse), conveyorized
spray, auger wash and ultrasonic.

Remember these basics about alkaline cleaning when you are researching your
next cleaning system.