Q&A - Chris Fowler, Exova

Materials World magazine
1 Sep 2012
Chris Fowler

Dr Chris Fowler, Technical Director of Corrosion and Protection at global testing group Exova, talks to Materials World about exciting new developments in corrosion management and how businesses can improve profitability. 

Dr Chris Fowler holds a BSc, MSc and PhD in metallurgy from the
University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST),
and became a Member of the Institute of Materials in 1977, becoming CEng
in the same year. After joining the Corrosion Industrial Services in
1980, he established what is now the Exova European Corrosion Centre in
1998 and is currently Technical Director of Corrosion and Protection for
the Exova Group. A Fellow of IOM3, in 2012 Dr Fowler became President
of the NACE Institute.

What have been your biggest achievements?

My most fulfilling achievement has been establishing a group of laboratories across the world capable of undertaking high-level corrosion test work. In addition, the introduction of true corrosion fatigue testing under sour service conditions was immensely rewarding, as has been the fostering of graduates to corrosion engineer status.

How has the industry changed during your career?

The industry is in much more of a hurry than it used to be. An increasing proportion of short-term project schedules simply doesn’t allow room for any problems in material qualification – everything is wanted yesterday. The fact that the industry is losing its experience is also a cause for concern. The new engineers coming through now do not have the mentors available to them as we did in the past, and this may have serious implications for the future of our highly specialised profession. However, this is something we are working towards at Exova – nurturing and guiding our future experts.

Why is the development of international best practice in corrosion management so crucial?

Corrosion management translates directly into asset integrity and extension of useful life – in other words, operational effectiveness and cost efficiency. If equipment can be made to last longer as a result of good corrosion management techniques, it will create greater profitability for the operator. The application of current technology can reduce corrosion losses by 30%, which feeds back into an organisation’s bottom-line performance and also boosts productivity.

Where do you see the most exciting developments in corrosion management?

The issue that needs to be addressed really urgently is the education of companies and individuals in life-cycle costing. In some cases, costings can show that higher initial investment in better materials and technology can greatly reduce operational maintenance, and hence reduce overall costs over a project lifetime. There are signifi cant business benefits that sadly, many people simply aren’t aware of.

What barriers are there to increasing awareness of these issues?

Short-termism and the culture of instant returns is a serious challenge. Prevention and mitigation of corrosion generate mid to long-term returns, but governments and industrial investors are often more interested in short-term results – either for the next election or to placate shareholders.

How has the global recession affected the industry?

Oil and gas exploration has continued at a steady rate, and the demand for energy probably exceeds supply. As a result, the sector has not felt the full impact of recessionary conditions, although a lot of cost cutting has taken place.

Can you tell us about your particular interests in corrosion.

My focus during my career has been sour-service corrosion and cracking, mainly upstream. As wells are subject to higher pressure and higher temperature, the material demands become much greater. This means that often the requirements for high strength and better corrosion resistance are not compatible.

What specific issues are there regarding corrosion in extreme environments?

The most extreme environments are dense-phase (super critical) hydrogen sulphide (H2S). With the advent of very high-pressure ‘deep’ hot wells, which produce dense-phase H2S, the selection of appropriate materials is even more demanding.

In particular we know little about the corrosivity at the interface between the liquid and gas phase. This presents challenges in the testing and qualification of materials. It is considered that water can dissolve in the H2S rather than the reverse, but to simulate such conditions in the laboratory poses additional safety issues. As such, high-nickel alloys are often specified, which are expensive, whereas it may be possible to use less expensive alloys if they can be qualified.

The industry doesn’t yet fully understand what corrosion mechanisms it is dealing with, and it’s quite difficult to carry out the test work in these conditions.

Why do you think industry still needs to be reminded of the issues around corrosion, despite the huge effects it can have on a business?

Inevitably, we return to the thorny issue of short-termism. Everyone wants rapid payback on investments – preventing the corrosion of equipment is not seen as a necessity. Senior management needs to have the cost benefits and savings explained in words they understand. Quite simply, their businesses will be much more profitable in the mid to long-term if they build corrosion prevention measures into their investment strategies.