Corrosion and electrochemistry from Davy to today

Cathodic protection is a highly effective method of preventing corrosion, and is used in multiple industries and environments. Its history in corrosion science really begins when Sir Humphry Davy first discovered the cathodic protection principles and applied them to electrochemical corrosion.

Davy’s experiments led to a better understanding of electrochemical corrosion and the first use of cathodic protection in 1824, when Davy successfully protected a British Navy ship’s copper sheathing from corrosion in seawater by using iron anodes.

In this article, we examine the process of electrochemical corrosion as an introduction to cathodic protection.

What is electrochemical corrosion?

Electrochemical corrosion is a process in which current flows between the cathodic and anodic areas on metallic surfaces, resulting in corrosion. There are always multiple elements in this process:

  • A host metal or metals exposed in an electrolyte.
  • An electrolyte is a medium that can conduct electricity by movement of ions (for example, saltwater, soil, or the pore water in concrete)
  • A metallic path between the exposed metal surfaces. Examples of this include:
    • A buried steel pipeline, accidentally connected to a copper earthing system in a classical ‘galvanic couple’ (the steel being anodic to the copper)
    • A buried or immersed steel pipeline or structure on which ‘anodic’ and ‘cathodic’ areas naturally establish due to variance in either the steel composition/metallurgy or within the electrolyte

Corrosion initiates on the metal/electrolyte interface and, at these anodic areas, low voltage direct current (DC) flows off the anodic metal into the electrolyte. Charged ions are released into the electrolyte and electrons are released into the metal. By convention, DC flow is opposite to electron flow.

The simple electrochemical circuit is:

  • Within the electrolyte (that is in the soil, the sea or river water, or the pore water within concrete) DC flows OFF the corroding anodic areas.
  • This must complete the electrical circuit, so it flows in the electrolyte and discharges on the non-corroding cathodic areas. The DC flows in the metallic circuit electronically, by electron movement. In the electrolyte it is via ionic movement, termed ‘ionic conduction’. The cathodic areas, receiving current flow from the electrolyte, do not corrode.

The electrochemist, rather than the engineer, will describe precisely the same process as the anodic area losing ions to the electrolyte (metal loss) and electrons to the metal (electron flow); the process is the same, it just that by convention the directions of electron and ion flow are opposite to the DC current flow.

In electrochemical corrosion, the magnitude of current flow is directly proportional to the rate of corrosion: approximately 10kg of steel is consumed by 1 ampere DC passing off a steel surface for one year.

How does cathodic protection help prevent corrosion?

Depending on whether it is described by an electrochemist or an engineer, cathodic protection might be described as:

  • Replacing the lost electrons from an external source, thus changing an anodic area into a cathodic area and preventing corrosion (electrochemist)
  • Providing cathodic protection current to all areas of the metallic surface within the electrolyte, sufficient to make all surfaces cathodic (engineer)

Though different descriptions, these are the same process.

Where is cathodic protection used?

Cathodic protection is used around the world to protect against corrosion, especially in aggressive environments such as soils, waters, and chloride contaminated concrete. Applications include:

  • Buried and immersed storage tanks – external surfaces of bases of above ground storage tanks with corrosive foundations; inside crude oil storage tanks with highly saline ‘water bottoms’; inside storage tanks for seawater or raw water
  • Ships’ hulls’ externals and internally in seawater-filled ballast tanks and cooling water systems
  • Offshore oil rigs, platforms, and subsea completions
  • Offshore wind foundations and tidal generators
  • Pipelines – buried and immersed – both onshore and offshore
  • Well casings
  • Flood defences and lock gates
  • Reinforcement in concrete

Cathodic protection is a specialisation

Though used extensively, cathodic protection is highly specialised. To be successful it requires a combination of the application of corrosion science, electrochemistry, electrical engineering, metallurgy, and often structural and mechanical engineering.

There are effective Standards (BS ENs and BS EN ISOs) for a wide range of CP applications in different environments for different types of structures. They all have one thing in common: all make clear that CP design must be undertaken by CP specialists with a documented and appropriate level of competence.

The standards make it clear that all work associated with cathodic protection (such as design, installation, testing, commissioning, performance assessment, and maintenance) should be undertaken by personnel with appropriate training, experience and competence.

How do you become a cathodic protection specialist?

Despite the rigorous nature of the standards surrounding cathodic protection, there are no graduate or postgraduate courses in cathodic protection engineering.

Cathodic protection specialists may start with a science or engineering degree, or via apprenticeships and trade skills, then augment these with specific training, experience and expertise.

The Institute of Corrosion offers both courses and certification in cathodic protection.

·         Courses in cathodic protection

ICorr cathodic protection courses provide the training required for levels 1 to 3 for cathodic protection data collectors, technicians and senior technicians in the sectors of buried, marine, and steel-in-concrete cathodic protection.

While providing the knowledge and skills training detailed in standard BS EN ISO 15257, existing experience and task competency are required depending on the course level.

These courses are suitable for those seeking certification of competence in cathodic protection in accordance with ISO 15257, and also for managers and others who wish to have an introduction to cathodic protection so that they understand what their staff or contractors need to be able to do and the limits of what they should do, within the scope of the standards.

·         Certification in cathodic protection

Independently of the cathodic protection courses, we also operate an independent assessment of competence. The ICorr Professional Assessment Committee (PAC) assesses whether the applicant has the requisite levels of experience, training, knowledge, and task skills as defined in BS EN ISO 15257.

This certification is recognised and valid internationally. In the UK, almost all steel-in-concrete cathodic protection projects, including those for Highways England (previously the Highways Agency), require cathodic protection personnel to be certified in accordance with ISO 15257. In addition, National Grid and the distribution companies, and many marine, port, harbour and offshore operators, also require certification of cathodic protection personnel.

Sustainability in cathodic protection provision

Cathodic protection companies will experience increasing benefits from having their employees certified in line with BS EN ISO 15257. They will be better trained, more competent, and better aware of their responsibilities. Clients are increasingly purchasing services from companies whose staff are certified in cathodic protection. For independent contractors, certification will enhance your reputation, help you to work more effectively, and give greater access to employment opportunities.

To learn more about our range of cathodic protection training courses and the experience and qualifications needed for certification, please visit our pages detailing the Cathodic Protection, Training, Assessment and Certification Scheme.

In our next article, we take a closer look at how cathodic protection works.