James Cook University researchers will soon begin investigating a new way of preventing corrosion that could better protect steel used in everything from car radiators to billion-dollar pipelines, and provide massive side benefits for an emerging Australian industry.
Peter Junk, Professor of Chemistry at JCU, will lead the study, which is funded by a $420,000 Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant.
He said that corrosion of steel infrastructure, found in bridges, water cooling towers, car radiators, oil and gas pipelines, and in shipping and aviation is a persistent and expensive problem – and only likely to get worse under projected climate change scenarios.
“Corrosion costs the world around US $4 trillion annually, more importantly it affects the safety and durability of the huge network of infrastructure assets vital for the provision of the world’s essential services,” said Professor Junk.
He said expected changes to the climate such as rising temperatures, higher sea levels, greater aerosol generation and increased levels of CO2 will enhance the environment for corrosion.
“It’s common to use chemical inhibitors to reduce corrosion’s impact and chromate salts have been excellent at this for over 80 years. But the toxic nature of the chromate ion is well known and for almost 30 years research has focussed on finding a more effective and environmentally acceptable replacement,” said Professor Junk.
He said rare earth inhibitors which have proven anti-corrosion properties and are relatively environmentally friendly are a potential solution. The term ‘rare earth’ covers 17 chemical elements that are relatively common, but widely dispersed around the Earth’s crust.
“We’re going to make a comprehensive examination of the nature and function of the protective film formed by rare earth inhibitors on steel surfaces. Then we’re going to make improved inhibitors in the expectation that we will get a better product out of it both in terms of environmental sustainability and in the practical effect of protecting material,” said Professor Junk.
He said the demand for corrosion inhibitors is so large that a successful range of rare earth inhibitors would provide a new bulk use for Australia’s extensive rare earth resources, directly aiding Australia’s existing and emerging rare earth producers and explorers.
“Our aims are at the cutting edge of corrosion science and our methods and equipment will be too. We’ll be taking the advantage of the unique capabilities of atom probe tomography in probing both structural and chemical features of metal surfaces at nano and atomic levels for the first time,” he said.
The ARC Discovery grant will help pay for the employment of four PhD students who will work on the project.