by Joe Evans, Ph.D
December 17, 2011
About 900 years before Newton formulated his universal gravitational theory, the Greek philosopher Aristotle espoused something different. He believed that all things had a natural place in the universe, so any object that fell to the earth did so because it had a "need" to return to its natural place. He further theorized that heavier objects would fall faster than lighter ones because they had an even greater need to return. We know now that his theory was a bit off the mark, but had he adapted it to corrosion, it could have described the process quite well.
Corrosion, like biological and organic decomposition, is a naturally occurring process. The question is not if it will occur-it is how quickly. Steel, for example, is a man-made material manufactured from iron ore (mostly iron oxides). Because energy is added during the manufacturing process, the end product is unstable and, given the opportunity, it will follow the law of entropy and return to its natural state. Whether it truly needs to resume its original identity is a question I shall leave to the psychologists.

Corrosion is an electrochemical process that requires that several conditions be present if it is to occur. There must be:

  • A supply of oxygen
  • An anode (where corrosion occurs)
  • A cathode
  • An electrolyte that permits the flow of ions and electric current
  • A conductive path for the return flow of current

The anode and cathode are electrically distinct areas that exhibit properties similar to the poles of a battery. They may be different structures (i.e., two different pieces of metal), or they may be two different locations in the same structure. The anode is the location or structure that suffers metal loss during corrosion. An electrolyte can be almost any material that contains moisture. Air, water, soil and concrete are a few common examples.

Its purpose is to provide a path for the flow of metal ions between the anode and cathode. It  alsoprovides a conduit for the electrical current that the ion flow generates. The greater its conductivity, the better its electrolytic capability. Salt water, for example, provides a much better path for ion and current flow than fresh water and therefore hastens the corrosion process. In a similar fashion, the metal itself provides a return path for the flow of current from the cathode back to the anode.

 Corrosion chemists refer to the different environments where these conditions can occur as corrosion cells. Three types of corrosion cells are common in pumping applications:

  1. Dissimilar Metal Cells-Commonly referred to as galvanic corrosion, these cells occur when two different metals contact one another in a common electrolyte.
  2. Dissimilar Electrolyte Cells-This type of corrosion occurs when a single structure passes through an electrolyte of varying properties.
  3. Differential Aeration Cells- These cells occur commonly in soils where a single structure passes through areas of differing oxygen concentration.

Corrosion, if left unchecked, can be an extremely efficient and swift process. For example, a current of a single ampere flowing from a steel pipeline into the soil can consume 20 pounds of pipe in a year.. Fortunately, it can be prevented if any one of the required conditions can be eliminated.

Probably the most common method of eliminating one of the required conditions is to coat the surface of a metal. A good coat of paint or epoxy can electrically isolate the surface of a metal structure from a potential electrolyte and therefore prevent it from corroding. Some of the epoxy coatings available today can  increase the corrosion resistance of  cast and ductile iron pumps  in salt water applications.

In fact, the product of corrosion itself can, in some cases, provide a protective coating. The iron oxide (rust) formed as iron or steel corrodes is not a good conductor. But, unfortunately, it does not adhere well and tends to flake away, thus exposing the surface to additional degradation. Aluminum oxide, on the other hand, is an extremely hard and durable substance and often does a good job of protecting aluminum surfaces from further corrosion.

Another method of corrosion prevention that has been used for more than 100 years is passive cathodic protection. I mentioned earlier that it is the anode that suffers metal loss during corrosion. If we transform a structure that is normally an anode into a cathode and let some other structure become the anode, we can protect the original structure. Cathodic protection does this by adding a sacrificial metal that gives up electrons more easily than the metal to be protected and thus becomes the anode. This allows the original structure to undergo a major life change (to that of a cathode). The process is termed passive because current flow between the anode and cathode occurs naturally and is due to galvanic action. It is an example of a dissimilar metal corrosion cell and illustrates how we can use a normal corrosion process to selectively protect a structure that would otherwise undergo corrosion.

One of the most common forms of passive cathodic protection is the galvanized coating of zinc found on sheet metal and steel piping. Since zinc is the less noble (looser electrons) metal, it becomes the anode and is sacrificed to preserve the primary metal. In submersible pump installations we can often attach a sacrificial anode directly to the pump body and achieve the same results as coating its entire internal and external surfaces. In either case, the anode, depending on its rate of decomposition, must be renewed periodically.