Tackling Rust in the Rustbelt

Sound of rusty hinge

Hear that? That’s the sound of a $400 billion dollar problem: rust. Government and businesses spend this much each year, dealing with the cost of corrosion.

When steel is exposed to water and air, it forms iron oxides, or rust. Think of your car in winter—the salt used to melt ice on the roads creates a cocktail that eats at the car’s metal underbelly.

Rust is one type of corrosion, and there are many more.

And there are ways to slow down this wear and tear. Adding magnesium or zinc, for instance, can change the chemical reaction that creates rust. Cars are now coated with zinc for protection against rust.

One man who knows all about this is Joe Payer, a professor at the University of Akron. He’s spent his career fighting things like rust. Now he trains students, in the country’s only corrosion bachelor’s program.

PAYER: We formed a group of undergraduate students we call the corrosion squad.

Team A is sent to find out why helicopters corrode and what to do about it, Team B looks at power plants, Team C, hip implants, you get the picture.

The university’s program has the federal government perking its ears. In fact the Department of Defense kicked in 6 million dollars. The DoD has a vested interest in keeping the nation’s fleet of ships and aircraft in good shape.

To understand corrosion, think of that water heater in your basement. The steel should corrode with its constant contact with water, but manufacturers put in magnesium bars that change the chemical reaction. Payer explains:

PAYER: If you go out to one of the big box stores and buy a water heater, you can get either a five year or an eight year warranty and the difference is one or two magnesium bars inside. So it’s kind of clever.

The science of corrosion is pretty advanced—researchers know how to make products that will last longer.

But in many cases, says Payer, people aren’t doing it:

PAYER: There’s a temptation to build it cheap and fix it. We’re trying to fix that. We’re trying to get the word out that in the long run and even in the medium run, that’s not the best thing for our society.

Expertise in this field is becoming high in demand—so chances are the corrosion squad will have no trouble finding jobs after graduation.

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