The Cost of Corrosion

The colossal cost for a simple chemical reaction.

Written by: Baril Coatings USA
Posted: May 24, 2024
updated on June 18, 2024

In July 1995 at Folsom Lake, a reservoir created by Folsom Dam in Northern California reached full capacity. With the power plant shut down for maintenance, the dam’s operator needed to open one of the spillway gates to maintain appropriate flow in the river below. As the gate began to rise, one side suddenly collapsed, allowing an uncontrolled torrent of water to flow past the gate down the spillway (see below). By the time the deluge had slowed enough to block the opening, nearly half the water stored in Folsom Lake had been lost.

Forensic investigation revealed that the gate malfunctioned due to corrosion of its pivot mechanism, called the trunnion, creating excessive friction. Essentially, the gate was stuck at its hinges. When the hoist tried to raise it, instead of pivoting upwards, the struts buckled, causing the gate to collapse. This gate had operated flawlessly for forty (40) years before the failure in 1995. However, corrosion is a deceitful issue. Because it occurs gradually, it’s hard to know when the levy breaks! It's estimated that we lose roughly $2.5 trillion per year globally due to the collective corrosion of the things we make and build. That is a colossal cost for a simple chemical reaction, and there’s an entire field of engineering dedicated to grappling with the problem.

In this article, we are talking about corrosion engineering for infrastructure and manufacturing. It will come as no surprise that we build a lot of things out of metal. These days nearly every human-made object is made at least partly of metal or in a metallic machine, from agricultural equipment, steel tanks, trailers and chassis and vehicles and to infrastructure like bridges, pipelines, sewers, pumps, tanks, gates, and transmission towers. Metals are particularly useful for many applications, and we have invented various processes, such as smelting, refining, and alloying, to assemble metallic molecules according to our needs. However, mother nature is resolved to dismantle the materials we create through that insidious process called corrosion.

Corrosion is an electrochemical descent into entropy: a way for mother nature to convert refined metal into a more stable form (usually an oxide).

Corrosion requires four things to occur: an anode (the corroding metal), a cathode (the metal that doesn’t corrode), a path for the electrical current between the two, and an electrolyte (typically water or soil) to complete the circuit. The combination of these elements is a corrosion cell, and the processes that corrode metals in nature are nearly identical to those used in batteries to store electricity. In short, corrosion is a redox (reduction-oxidation) reaction, which means electrons are transferred, in this case from the metal to a more stable material called an oxide. For corroded iron or steel, we call the resulting oxide rust.

Corrosion takes many forms, and corrosion engineers have to be familiar with all of them. These engineers know the common design pitfalls that exacerbate corrosion, like not including drainage holes, leaving small gaps in steel structures, and mixing different types of metals. Corrosion can occur from the atmosphere or by allowing dissimilar metals to contact one another, called galvanic corrosion. Even using an ordinary steel bolt on a stainless steel object can lead to degradation over time. Corrosion can happen in crevices, pits, or between individual grains of the metal’s crystalline structure. Even concrete structures are vulnerable to corrosion of the steel reinforcement embedded within. When rebar rusts, it expands, creating internal stresses that lead to spalling or worse.

There’s a major professional organization: the AMPP or Association for Materials Protection and Performance, that offers training and certifications, develops standards, and holds annual conferences for professionals involved in the fight against corrosion. Those professionals employ a myriad of ways to protect structures against this insidious force, one of the simplest tools being material selection. Fortunately, not all metals corrode at the same rate or in the same circumstances, and some barely corrode at all. While steel is the most common metal used in structures due to strength and cost it’s sadly one of the most susceptible to corrosion.

Weathering steel (sometimes known by its trade name of Corten Steel) is a group of alloys that are naturally resilient against rust because of passivation. A special blend of elements, including manganese, nickel, silicon, and chromium, doesn’t keep the steel from rusting but allows the layer of rust to stay attached, forming a protective layer that significantly slows corrosion. If you looked, you would see weathering steel used in many structural applications. This material is favored because it’s strong, relatively inexpensive, and doesn’t need to be painted regularly, saving tons of money.

In 1998, the Federal Highway Administration conducted a 2-year study on the monetary impacts of corrosion across nearly every industry sector, from infrastructure and transportation to production and manufacturing. They found that the annual direct costs of corrosion in the U.S. made up an astronomical $276 billion, over 3% of the entire GDP. Assuming we still spend roughly as much today, that amounts to over $1,400 per person per year, more than the average American spends on gasoline! Of course, you don’t get a monthly rust bill. Corrosion costs show up in increased taxes to pay for infrastructure; increased rates for water, sewer, electricity, and natural gas; increased costs of goods; and shorter lifespans for the metal things you buy (especially vehicles). But corrosion has costs that go even beyond money.

Case in point, in 2014, the City of Flint, Michigan, began using water from the Flint River as their main source of drinking water to save money. The river water had a higher chloride concentration than the previous supply, making it significantly more corrosive. Many cities add corrosion inhibitors to their water supply to prevent decay of pipe walls over time, but the City of Flint decided against it, in favor of saving a little coin. The result? The water in the city’s distribution system began leaching lead from aging pipes, exposing residents to this extremely dangerous heavy metal and causing a water crisis that lasted for five years. Nearly 80 lawsuits, many still ongoing, government officials fired and in some cases criminally charged, and upwards of 12,000 kids exposed to elevated levels of lead all resulted because of poor corrosion management.

The leaching lead from aging pipes created quite the change in the water toxicity as you can see from the below image:

Metals are so necessary and important to modern society that we’ll likely never escape the problem, but the field of corrosion engineering continues to advance so that we can learn more about how to manage it and mitigate its incredible cost.

At Baril Coatings USA, we specialize in providing advanced coatings that offer superior protection against corrosion, extending the life of your infrastructure and reducing maintenance costs. Our high-performance coatings are designed to withstand the harshest environmental conditions, ensuring that your investments remain protected over time.

We understand the impact that corrosion can have on your bottom line, and we are committed to helping you find solutions that are both effective and cost-efficient. By leveraging the latest advancements in materials science, chemistry and corrosion engineering, we can offer products that not only protect your assets but also contribute to a more sustainable and resilient infrastructure.

Contact us today to learn more about our products and how we can help you combat the cost of corrosion.

Let us help with your next project.