Research Team Studies Corrosion Mitigation


A team of researchers from the Brookhaven National Laboratory and two universities recently published a study on how water vapor can clean aluminum samples after observing surface reactions from the process.

According to a release from Binghamton University, though water vapor on metal can cause corrosion and mechanical problems in a machine’s performance, the process of passivation can create a thin inert layer to act as a barrier against further degradation.

About the Research

The researchers state that have been using a technique called environmental transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to directly view molecules interacting on the smallest possible scale. The exact chemical reaction is not fully understood on an atomic level, though this is reportedly changing with the help of TEM.

Faculty member at Binghamton University’s Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science Professor Guangwen Zhou has reportedly been studying the structural and functional properties of metals and the process of making “green” steel.

Zhou is joined by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Their latest research on this subject, titled “Atomistic mechanisms of water vapor induced surface passivation,” was published in the journal Science Advances.

“This phenomenon is well-known because it happens in our daily lives,” Zhou said. “But how do water molecules react with aluminum to form this passivation layer? If you look at the [research] literature, there’s not much work about how this happens at an atomic scale. If we want to use it for good, we must know, because then we will have some way to control it.”

The team reportedly found that, in addition to the aluminum hydroxide layer that formed on the surface, a second amorphous layer formed underneath it, showing that there is a transport mechanism to diffuse oxygen into the substrate.

“Most corrosion studies focus on the growth of the passivation layer and how it slows down the corrosion process,” Zhou said. “To look at it from an atomic scale, we feel we can bridge the knowledge gap.”

According to the team, the cost of repairing corrosion around the world is estimated at $2.5 trillion a year, over 3% of the global GDP. Because of this, researchers believe that developing better ways to manage oxidation would lead to significant economic benefits.

Additionally, the team states that understanding how a water molecule’s hydrogen and oxygen atoms break apart and interact with metals could help develop new clean-energy solutions, which is reportedly a large reason why the U.S. Department of Energy funded this research.

“If you break water into oxygen and hydrogen, when you recombine it, it’s just water again,” Zhou stated. “It doesn’t have the contamination of fossil fuels, and it doesn’t produce carbon dioxide.”

Due to the potential benefits of clean energy, the DOE has reportedly consistently renewed Zhou’s grant funding for the past 15 years.

“I greatly appreciate the long-term support for this research,” Zhou said. “It’s a very important issue for energy devices or energy systems, because you have a lot of metallic alloys that are used as structural material.”

Similar Research

In 2018, research at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, shed some light on the atomic-level process of corrosion vis a vis water vapor, zeroing in on the role of protons in the oxidation process.

Langli Luo, Mao Su and Pengfei Yan authored the report, published in Nature Materials under the title “Atomic origins of water-vapour-promoted alloy oxidation.” The authors and their team used the facility’s environmental transmission electron microscope to observe at the atomic level water vapor corrosion of a nickel-chromium alloy at elevated temperatures.

Under the microscope, the researchers saw “a complex dance of protons, cations and anions that led to increased corrosion and a more porous structure of the oxide,” according to EMSL.

The hint at the role of protons in the oxidation process, the researchers say, could have implications in our understanding of water vapor-induced corrosion processes in general.

The research was funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences, Materials Sciences and Engineering Division.


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