Getting to the centre of corrosion

Materials World magazine
1 Sep 2017

A BP/academic programme looks to explore the fundamentals of corrosion. Khai Trung Le talks to Professor Philip Withers on the project’s goals and expected outcomes.

Despite an estimated global annual cost of US$2.5 trillion (2013, NACE International), the fundamental processes of corrosion are poorly understood. A University of Manchester-led collaborative programme, ‘Preventing Surface Degradation in Demanding Environments’, aims to explore the early stages of corrosion and provide new insights into surface degradation to develop better ways to combat it. 

Philip Withers, Regius Professor of Materials at the University of Manchester, UK, and Chief Investigator of the programme, notes that while there is a greater empiric understanding of corrosion, the underpinning assumptions date back decades. Withers told Materials World, ‘We predict the rate of corrosion at a uniform rate. But it hasn’t been possible to look at how corrosion films form at the earliest stages – what the nuclei of corrosion events are.’

The principle collaborators with Manchester include BP, Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, UK, who have previously worked together on corrosion research through the BP International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM). Professor Anne Neville and Professor Colin Pullman from the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh, UK, will also work on the programme. The EPSRC has provided around half of the programme’s £5m funding through its Prosperity Partnership scheme, with BP providing the remainder.

The programme has a five-year lifespan, but as most of the parties have a history of collaborating on corrosion projects with BP, Withers expects several other projects to branch off from their findings. ‘Within BP and the universities, we don’t see this as a five-year programme, but as one that will start a whole series of avenues,’ he said. ‘Some will be pursued within academic routes, others such as the development of new coatings or methods of lubrication will be followed up by BP through BP-ICAM or by other industrial partners.’ 

With the programme still in its earliest stages, full details of areas of research have yet to be disclosed. However, Withers specified that the five-year programme would be broken down into two parts. ‘First, we will try and extract fundamental understanding, and after two years we will meet together and bring strategies for controlling corrosion specific to BP. Some will be researched by BP, and the wider aspects of corrosion will be studied within the EPSRC project.’

Initial ideas include developing devices that allow the study of corrosion in situ. Withers said, ‘One of the problems is traditionally having to study corrosion after the event, whereas we’re developing rigs that will allow us to follow the corrosion events under realistic timescales and environments. That, we hope, will give us clues on how these precursors of corrosion start to form.’

Much of the impetus to beginning a project exploring the fundamentals of corrosion is borne out of new technologies, including synchrotron X-ray and electron microscope, and the progression of modelling. ‘A team at Imperial will look at developing multi-scale and multi-temporal models of these corrosion processes. It’s the combination of new techniques and data that makes us think we have a chance to make a step-up on recognising the problem,’ said Withers.

The Prosperity Partnership scheme is part of the UK Government’s Industrial Strategic Challenge Fund, which has already supported ten partnerships between 17 universities and over 30 industrial partners. Withers added, ‘The Prosperity Partnership is a brand new approach. The EPSRC has never run a competition like this, and I think they were surprised and heartened by the interest of industry to co-fund what is quite fundamental research.’

An EPSRC Prosperity Partnership video detailing the programme can be viewed at