The active process in a short length of steel wire passivated by 65 per cent nitric acid has been observed under the influence of a polarizing current, and the form of the potential recorded by the cathode ray oscillograph. In the passive wire, 80 per cent of the total potential drop takes place at the anode, 20 per cent at the cathode. The change from active to passive states, as measured by the potential change, is very abrupt compared to the duration of activity and the potential curve at a point on the wire is probably almost rectangular.
The duration of the refractory state is decreased at the anode and increased at the cathode, as in nerve. This fact is against the idea that reactivity after passivation results from a partial reduction of an oxide layer.
Soft iron wire passivated by anodal polarization repassivates after activation in acid of a dilution that fails to passivate it initially. It soon becomes rhythmic with a very short refractory phase, and then reacts continuously. Such a wire exhibits a very sharp alternation between a dark brown oxide coat during activity, and a bright clean surface during passivation.
A passive steel wire in nitric acid shows many of the characteristics of an inert electrode such as platinum, and it may be inferred that, superposed upon the primary passivation potential, there exists an electrode or oxidation-reduction potential equilibrium between the effects of the various constituents of the solution.
It is suggested that the phenomena of nerve-like reactivity in this system may involve an alternation between two protective coatings of the steel wire. During activity, the surface becomes mechanically coated with a brown oxide. If this coating does not adhere, due to gas convection or to rapid solution of the oxide, passivation does not result. Under sufficiently intense oxidizing conditions, a second oxide coat may form in the interstices of the first, and cover the surface as the first coating dissolves off. This furnishes the electrochemical protection of passivation, which is followed by the gradual attainment of electrode equilibrium with the solution.