Understanding and eliminating corrosion

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bp and The University of Manchester are leading a project to better understand and eliminate corrosion, supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) Prosperity Partnership programme.

Over a billion tonnes of steel is produced every year. Much of that steel is prone to corrosion almost immediately. A Prosperity Partnership between bp and The University of Manchester (UoM) was launched in 2017 with an aim to understand corrosion at a fundamental level so that better inhibitors and prevention methods could be developed based on a scientific understanding rather than more empirical methods.

Sheetal Handa, Materials Science Adviser at bp and Associate Director at the bp-ICAM (bp-International Centre for Advanced Materials), where the research is taking place, explained:

“Surface degradation, for example corrosion and wear – are key enduring challenges for industry and understanding materials at a fundamental level is really important to industrial operations. But they are challenges not just for us and the rest of the energy industry, but also for industry as a whole.”

Corrosion leads to rusting, causing materials to degrade. Degradation impacts a wide range of industrial sectors – including energy, civil marine and automotive transport, aerospace and nuclear, and their supply chains. Corrosion costs worldwide industry $2 trillion a year globally, with the annual cost to the UK being £55 billion. The resulting cost of wear to the UK economy is estimated to be £24 billion annually, which amounts to approximately 1.6% of the country’s GDP.

Handa continued: “Surface degradation costs a lot of money. It reduces the efficiency of operations, causes a lot of delay and a huge amount of money is spent on chemicals in the form of inhibitors to prevent corrosion. Partnerships like this one, between academia and industry, are absolutely critical - many things we want to understand better will be through fundamental science and engineering”

Preventing or reducing corrosion will make materials and industry generally more resilient, efficient and sustainable. It will increase the lifespan of assets, reduce the environmental impact of industry and support bp and the UK on their path to 2050 net zero ambitions.

Professor Philip Withers, Regius Professor of Materials in the School of Materials at The University of Manchester and academic lead of the partnership, said:

“Although there have been impressive strides in the empirical understanding of corrosion, many of the underpinning assumptions and industrial practices date back decades. Bringing together researchers from the universities of Manchester, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leeds and Imperial, we have worked closely with bp to look at a wide range of advanced materials problems. In the second phase of the project we are building on the knowledge we gained in the first part to try and develop smart coatings and smart tribo-films.”

The bp-ICAM was set up by bp in partnership with The University of Manchester, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012 to investigate advanced materials in the energy industry including issues such as corrosion and wear. The University of Edinburgh and the University of Leeds have also been invited to lend their expertise in the Prosperity Partnership.

The Prosperity Partnership between bp and The University of Manchester is facilitated and part-funded by EPSRC. Prosperity partnerships are business-led research partnerships between leading UK based businesses and their long-term strategic university partners.  “Prosperity partnerships are a great idea”, says Handa. “There’s a realisation that industry does want to do fundamentals but doesn’t always have the people or funding to do it and developing that fundamental understanding of a problem is key to addressing it”.