Combating the economic drain of corrosion


Combating the economic drain of corrosion

Corrosion costs the world trillions annually so choosing the right materials to ensure adequate corrosion resistance is crucial, especially when specifying electrical products for harsh environments.

For instance, in offshore oil and gas operations equipment is constantly exposed to seawater and salt spray, which are highly corrosive due to the autocatalytic action of sodium chloride and other dissolved chlorides.

Corrosive substances such as hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide also occur naturally in oil and gas fields. Other corrosives that affect a wide range of industries include chlorine, bromine, hydrochloric acid, and ammonia.

The World Corrosion Organisation estimates the worldwide annual cost of corrosion at $2.2 trillion, more than three percent of global GDP. Corrosion can take many forms, and correct selection of materials and finishes is key to preventing each type. Appleton, a worldwide leader in electrical products for industrial areas, offers tips to safeguarding electrical equipment from corrosion.

Select materials according to their galvanic properties. Different metals and alloys have different electrode potentials. When two different metals are electrically connected in the presence of an electrolyte, such as seawater, the more active metal will become anodic – losing electrons and increasing its oxidation state in a process known as galvanic corrosion.

The galvanic series ranks metals from noble to active, based on the strength of ion bonding at the surface. A relatively more noble metal, such as stainless steel, will resist corrosion better than a more active metal, such as cast iron. Galvanic corrosion can be minimised by selecting metals close together in the galvanic series. Alternatively, a more active metal can be used as a sacrificial anode that attracts corrosion in order to protect the more noble metal from attack.

Use protective coatings as various finishes can be applied to help isolate metallic surfaces from the surrounding corrosive environment. The most familiar example is ordinary paint applied to steel to prevent rust, but there are many other methods including baked enamel, epoxy powder coat and PVC coating. For effective protection, coatings must be applied properly and protected against damage during installation and use. The zinc surface on galvanised steel serves both as a protective coating and, if damaged, a sacrificial anode that will corrode in preference to the exposed steel.

Certain metals form a layer of metal oxide on the surface, a few molecules thick, in a process known as passivation, and it is worth taking advantage of this. It occurs naturally, but the process can also be enhanced through chemical passivation treatments or anodisation. Unlike ordinary rust, the passivated layer is tightly bound to the surface, preventing any further penetration of oxygen or corrosive chemicals. The most familiar examples are aluminium and stainless steel, which form passivated layers of aluminium oxide and chromium oxide, respectively.

If the surface is damaged, the passivated layer normally re-forms quickly. However, adverse conditions can defeat the process. For example, pitting corrosion can occur in aluminium exposed to seawater when chloride ions interfere with passivation. Welded stainless steel can corrode when the carbon content is sufficiently high to form chromium carbides, depleting the chromium available for passivation in the weld zone and enabling a galvanic reaction between areas with differing chromium content.

When properly selected for the intended application, however, passivated materials can provide excellent protection even in highly corrosive environments.

Choose non-metallic components that are completely impervious to the environments and substances that can corrode metals. Non-metallic materials may be attacked by specific chemicals, however, depending on the composition of the plastics used. The vast majority of applications will never be exposed to these substances. Prolonged exposure to UV radiation can also degrade plastics, and users in high-UV locations should account for this in their materials specifications.