Materials

Scientists get the lead out when creating safer brass

Scientists get the lead out wh...
Plumbing fixtures made from conventional brass, such as these, can leach lead into drinking water
Plumbing fixtures made from conventional brass, such as these, can leach lead into drinking water
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Plumbing fixtures made from conventional brass, such as these, can leach lead into drinking water
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Plumbing fixtures made from conventional brass, such as these, can leach lead into drinking water

According to a 2016 study, 56 percent of Australian households produce drinking water that contains lead – this is thanks largely to brass plumbing, which leaches lead into the water. A new lead-free brass alloy, however, could help put an end to the problem.

If ingested in large amounts, lead can lead to health problems such as anemia and weakness, along with kidney and brain damage.

In most types of plumbing brass (particularly the older stuff), it takes the form of tiny globules embedded throughout the material. And although these can indeed get into water supplies, they also have their good points – they provide lubrication, which makes the brass easier to machine, and helps brass fixtures to form a watertight seal once installed.

Led by Dr. Kevin Laws, scientists at Australia's University of New South Wales developed a new type of brass – known as bright brass – in which the lead globules are replaced with particles composed of another material. These particles form within the brass as it cools down after casting.

The researchers aren't saying what the secret material is just yet, but it's claimed to provide the lubricating qualities of lead, while being non-toxic to people. Manufacturing can take place at existing facilities, resulting in a finished product that's silver in color, to help visually differentiate it. Laws claims that it's cost-competitive and performs mechanically similarly, if not better, than leaded brass.

Spinoff company Advanced Alloy Holdings is now working on commercializing the bright brass, which could be on the market within a year.

Source: University of New South Wales

7 comments
VincentWolf
Get the lead out takes on new meaning.
Kpar
Almost ALL drinking water contains some lead- the question is, how much? I cannot believe that the brass plumbing adds that much. You run into the law of diminishing returns- how much does perfection cost?
Wolf0579
And here I've been thinking all these years, that the lead in drinking water was predominately from the lead solder. But we use copper pipe for the most part here in the US, and not brass.
J4rH43d
We use copper pipe in the US and, when soldered with pure tin, is lead-free. However, most of the threaded fittings and faucets are made with "free-machining" brass and contain lead, so the final bit of the plumbing line MIGHT leach out some lead. In most water systems, cold water tends to cover any exposed lead with a mineral film. Hot water and low-pH water WILL leach out some of the lead. For drinking,run water for a few seconds and only use the cold tap.
EZ
Lead free solder sucks. When they made the switch, a few years ago, I wasted hours trying to get my solder to stick. I then learned that the new stuff doesn't last very long. You have to keep buying new stuff. Gee, I wonder if that was in the business plan?
neutrino23
"The researchers aren't saying what the secret material is just yet..." Funny, it would take about 15 minutes with a SEM/EDS or Laser Ablation Mass Spectrometer to find out what this stuff is. Probably they want to get some sort of legal protection before letting this go public.
ljaques
Lead-free brass fittings have been around for at least a decade, and the secret sauce is Bismuth. Entire city water mains pipes used to be made entirely of lead. Later they used asbestos cement. Heh heh heh. I avoid lead-free solder (no ROHS, please) and continue to buy and use real 63/37 solder for my electronics projects to ensure that I get no tin whiskers, thank-you-very-much. For more info on tin whiskers, see https://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1279227