Exploring the Molecular Mysteries of Metal Degradation: A Pioneering Perspective on Corrosion

by Hiroshi Tanaka
metal corrosion research

In a significant scientific breakthrough, researchers employed environmental transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to delve into the molecular intricacies of metal’s interaction with water vapor. This interaction leads to either corrosion or passivation, which has far-reaching implications in enhancing corrosion control and advancing clean energy technologies, offering substantial economic and environmental advantages. Source: SciTechPost.com

This innovative study sheds light on how water vapor at the molecular level influences metals, a critical factor in managing corrosion and fostering the development of clean energy.

Corrosion occurs when metal comes into contact with water vapor, causing mechanical issues that impact the efficiency of machinery. Alternatively, this interaction can result in passivation, where a thin, inert layer forms, providing a shield against further damage.

Although the precise chemical processes at the atomic level were previously unclear, they are now becoming more comprehensible due to environmental TEM. This method enables scientists to observe molecular interactions at the smallest scales.

Innovative Studies in Atomic-Level Reactions

Since his appointment to Binghamton University’s Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science in 2007, Professor Guangwen Zhou, a member of the Mechanical Engineering Department, has been investigating the atomic-level mechanisms of reactions. Collaborating with teams from the University of Pittsburgh and Brookhaven National Laboratory, Zhou has explored the structural and functional attributes of metals and the production of environmentally friendly steel.

Their most recent study, titled “Atomistic mechanisms of water vapor induced surface passivation,” published in Science Advances, includes contributions from Binghamton PhD students Xiaobo Chen, Dongxiang Wu, Chaoran Li, Shuonan Ye, and Shyam Bharatkumar Patel, MS ‘21; Na Cai, PhD ’12; Zhao Liu, PhD ’20; Weitao Shan, MS ’16, and Guofeng Wang from the University of Pittsburgh; along with Sooyeon Hwang, Dmitri N. Zakharov, and Jorge Anibal Boscoboinik from the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The study featured a transmission electron microscopy image of an oxidized aluminum surface, revealing that the passivating oxide film formed in water vapor comprises an inner amorphous aluminum oxide layer and an outer crystalline aluminum hydroxide layer. Source: Provided

In their research, Zhou and his team introduced water vapor to pristine aluminum samples and monitored the surface reactions.

“This is a familiar phenomenon in our everyday life,” Zhou remarked. “However, the specifics of how water molecules interact with aluminum to create this passivation layer are not widely documented in the scientific literature, especially at the atomic scale. Understanding this is crucial if we aim to utilize it effectively, as it would allow us to control the process.”

They uncovered a previously unseen phenomenon: Besides the formation of an aluminum hydroxide surface layer, an additional amorphous layer developed underneath, suggesting a mechanism that enables oxygen to diffuse into the base material.

“Most studies on corrosion have concentrated on the development of the passivation layer and its role in slowing corrosion,” Zhou noted. “By examining these processes at an atomic level, we believe we can fill in the gaps in our understanding.”

Guangwen Zhou serves as a professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science. Source: Jonathan Cohen

Economic and Environmental Repercussions of Corrosion Research

Globally, corrosion repair costs are estimated at $2.5 trillion annually, accounting for over 3% of the world’s GDP. Hence, better oxidation management methods could provide significant economic benefits.

Moreover, comprehending the disintegration of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms and their interaction with metals could pave the way for clean-energy innovations. This potential has led the U.S. Department of Energy to fund this research and Zhou’s related projects in the past.

“Separating water into oxygen and hydrogen and then recombining them results in pure water,” Zhou explained. “This process avoids the pollutants of fossil fuels and does not emit carbon dioxide.”

The DOE has consistently renewed funding for Zhou’s research over the last 15 years, recognizing its importance for energy devices and systems that frequently employ metallic alloys as structural materials.

“I am deeply grateful for the sustained support of this research,” Zhou expressed. “It addresses a critical issue in the field of energy.”

Reference: “Atomistic mechanisms of water vapor–induced surface passivation” by Xiaobo Chen, Weitao Shan, Dongxiang Wu, Shyam Bharatkumar Patel, Na Cai, Chaoran Li, Shuonan Ye, Zhao Liu, Sooyeon Hwang, Dmitri N. Zakharov, Jorge Anibal Boscoboinik, Guofeng Wang, and Guangwen Zhou, 1 November 2023, Science Advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adh5565

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about metal corrosion research

What is the main focus of the recent scientific study on metal and water vapor?

The study primarily investigates how water vapor interacts with metals at a molecular level, focusing on the processes of corrosion and passivation. This research is crucial for improving corrosion management and advancing clean energy solutions.

How does water vapor affect metals, and what are the study’s findings?

When water vapor comes into contact with metals, it can cause corrosion, leading to mechanical problems. Alternatively, it can result in passivation, forming a protective layer against further damage. The study used environmental TEM to observe these interactions at an atomic level, revealing new details about the formation of these layers.

Who conducted this research, and what methodology was used?

The research was conducted by Professor Guangwen Zhou and his team from Binghamton University, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh and Brookhaven National Laboratory. They utilized environmental transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to directly observe the molecular interactions on metals.

What are the potential economic and environmental impacts of this research?

Understanding and managing metal corrosion better could save costs globally, given that corrosion repair is estimated at $2.5 trillion annually. Additionally, insights from this research could contribute to developing clean-energy solutions, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and decreasing CO2 emissions.

What are the broader implications of this study for clean energy development?

The study’s insights into how water molecules break apart and interact with metals could pave the way for innovations in clean energy. Understanding these interactions at an atomic level is crucial for developing more efficient and environmentally friendly energy systems and materials.

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Mike Johnson December 20, 2023 - 2:35 am

Really fascinating stuff! but I think there’s a bit more to the story than just the scientific angle, What about the real-world applications?

Greg B. December 20, 2023 - 4:56 am

Great article overall but, some links or references would’ve been helpful, to dive deeper into the topic.

Linda Smith December 20, 2023 - 2:45 pm

interesting read, but there were some parts that were kind of hard to follow, maybe simplify the technical jargon next time?

Sara K. December 20, 2023 - 5:02 pm

wow, i never knew metal corrosion could be so interesting, this article opens up a whole new perspective, especially with the clean energy angle.

David T December 20, 2023 - 6:29 pm

gotta say, the economic impacts are huge, 2.5 trillion! that’s a lot of money, could have used some more details on that part.


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