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MIT: Self-Healing Metal Oxides Provide Corrosion Protection

Thursday, April 5, 2018

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Researchers based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered that a solid oxide protective coating for metals can deform as a liquid would, filling gaps and providing corrosion protection.

According to the research, the thin layer of coating could help prevent leakage of tiny molecules that can penetrate through most materials, such as radioactive tritium that forms inside the cores of nuclear power plants.

Corrosion Protection

Ju Li, a professor of nuclear engineering and science at MIT and senior author of the research paper, said that “we were trying to understand why aluminum oxide and silicon dioxide are special oxides that give excellent corrosion resistance.”

In conducting research, the team used instruments to observe the surface of metals coated with these “special” oxides to monitor what happened when they were exposed to an oxygen environment and placed under stress.

Christine Daniloff/Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Researchers based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered that a solid oxide protective coating for metals can deform as a liquid would, filling gaps and providing corrosion protection.

According to MIT, metals under stress from pressure inside a reactor vessel, exposed to superheated steam, can corrode quickly if not protected properly. A solid protective layer may also lead to cracks that allow the oxygen to penetrate to the bare metal.

“We want an oxide that is liquid-like and crack-resistant,” said team leader Yang Yang.

Aluminum oxide seems to be the solution, as it has the desired liquid-like behavior even at room temperature, granted that its applied in a thin enough coating—about 2 to 3 nanometers thick.

Yang noted that the traditional assumption in regard to the oxide is that it’s brittle and subject to cracking. Up until recently, no one had been able to prove otherwise due to difficulty observing the material under realistic conditions. Thanks to the use of a transmission electron microscope (E-TEM), this was made possible.

“For the first time, we’ve observed this at nearly atomic resolution,” said Li.

The analysis revealed that an aluminum oxide layer, when applied thinly, is almost as deformable as a comparably thin layer of aluminum metal. When aluminum oxide is coated onto a bulk piece of aluminum, the liquid-like flow “keeps the aluminum covered," Li noted.

With the help of the E-TEM, researchers demonstrated that aluminum with an oxide coating could be stretched to more than double its length without cracks opening. Even with the stress, the oxide “forms a very uniform conformal layer that protects the surface, with no grain boundaries or cracks,” said Li.

The material is technically a kind of glass, but it behaves like a liquid and can coat the surface as long as it is applied thinly enough.

Application opportunities for the coating are reportedly wide and varied, given the crack-free surface the coating can provide.

The paper was published in the journal Nano Letters, with the research being partially supported by the National Science Foundation.


Tagged categories: Corrosion; Corrosion protection; Quality control; Research and development

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