Historically, glass has been etched with the corrosive and dangerous hydrofluoric acid, a combination of hydrogen and fluorine. Because of its reactivity, hydrofluoric acid must be stored in polyethylene or polytetrafluoroethylene containers. The acidic salt ammonium bifluoride has sometimes been formulated with other substances to form a “safer” etchant for glass. Unfortunately, this may lead to a false sense of security. Ammonium bifluoride is compounded with inert ingredients, and though not quite so strong as straight hydrofluoric acid, is capable of inflicting similar damage.
Hydrofluoric acid may cause severe damage because of its exceptionally corrosive nature. For instance, one may get a bit of the acid under a fingernail. and the acid can eat clear to the bone. Hydrofluoric acid's fumes can damage or destroy the cornea. More than a few people have lost their lives to hydrofluoric acid.
The Chemical Nature of Hydrofluoric Acid
Fluorine possesses the highest affinity toward electrons among elements known to man. Thus it is the most “electronegative” of the elements. Fluorine can displace the very electronegative oxygen from its bonds with other elements. In the case of silicon oxide, the hydrofluoric acid reacts to produce a chemical complex--a new acid--hydrofluosilicic acid. Thus the equation reads, SiO2 + 6 HF --> H2SiF6 + 2 H2O This equation tells us that one molecule of silica plus six molecules of hydrofluoric acid, produces one molecule of hydrofluosilicic acid plus 2 molecules of water.
This reaction results in the removal of some of the silica from the surface of the glass object from the oxide matrix, leaving a roughened, frosted appearance. The reaction is not an overly rapid reaction, and so it is easily controlled to produce a useful artistic product. To assure that the etching occurs only where it is desired, wax or some other nonreactive substance is applied where etching is unwanted. Glass objects can then be etched with a portrait, a landscape scene or some other artwork.
Most of the most common reactive creams considered safer for use by the less trained, utilize ammonium bifluoride. Care must still be applied, instructions followed and safety precautions taken. Recommended protective gloves should be worn to protect from the corrosive nature of all fluoride etchants.
Material Data Safety Sheets
Hydrofluoric acid and other fluoride substances are hazardous substances. Be sure to consult the manufacturer's MSDS sheet. In addition, the government makes online provision via the MSDS Search Nationwide Repository.
Vincent Summers received his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from Drexel University in 1973. He furthered his education through the University of Virginia's Citizen Scholar Program program, taking many courses in organic and quantum chemistry. He has written technical articles since 2010.