Fellow’s Corner

In this month’s column, the retiring President, Dr G Hinds FREng FICorr FNACE FIMMM, discusses corrosion and the energy transition, and the need for corrosion experts to be involved.

These are challenging times for everyone. Coronavirus, Brexit and climate change have dominated the headlines in 2020, and we’ve all been adjusting to these new realities. Coronavirus and Brexit will be dealt with. There are already encouraging signs from vaccine development, and ultimately the UK and the EU should agree on a series of legislative and trade deals, even if these need to evolve with time.
However, climate change is a much bigger problem and one that we cannot take our eyes off while we address the other issues. The weight of scientific evidence that the majority of the current global warming trend is the result of human activities is now overwhelming, and very few governments and organisations are still arguing credibly against the need for urgent action. The UK has taken a global lead in this area, becoming the first country to set a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and banning the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030. But this is not just a case of moral leadership. There are huge export opportunities for countries prepared to be early investors in low carbon technologies, not to mention the potential for job creation and improved quality of life for citizens.

The Institute of Corrosion has always been heavily dependent on the oil and gas sector for its membership, activities and revenue. There is no doubt that change is coming, and indeed this has already started, so together with our members, the energy companies and their supply chains, we need to manage the transition to a low carbon economy as effectively as possible. This is something we can do very much in partnership, to everyone’s benefit.

I firmly believe that there is a bright future for the Institute, and for corrosion professionals in general. ICorr members have very specialised and valuable skills – and these are highly transferable. Low carbon energy technologies suffer from just as many corrosion issues as oil and gas, and many of them are nowhere near as well understood or managed. Addressing these will require a concerted effort from industry, standardisation bodies, research institutes and academia. This could return us to the sort of boom in materials and corrosion activity last seen following the advent of North Sea oil and gas in the 1960s. Our members are already starting to make a significant contribution to this transition. For example, ICorr members have been prominent in the development of a new standard, ISO/DIS 24656, for cathodic protection of offshore wind structures. This activity has built on many decades of experience in the protection of offshore oil and gas structures, which was initially ignored by wind farm operators, with unfortunate consequences for the early installations. The impact of the new standard will be extended lifetime and reduced lifecycle cost of offshore wind farms, reducing electricity bills and maximising the return on investment in the technology.

Great progress has been made in transitioning the UK electrical grid to renewable energy sources, with an impressive 48% of total demand met by renewables in 2019. However, electricity generation accounts for just 12% of UK emissions, with the heating and transport sectors making up the bulk of the rest. Decarbonisation of these sectors will be far more challenging, and is likely to require significant investment in carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), energy vectors such as batteries and hydrogen, and a step change in electricity generation capacity. CCUS and hydrogen are obvious areas for energy companies to move into, building on existing expertise and facilities for large scale handling of fluid product. The UK has already launched a number of demonstration projects in this area, including those at Humberside, Teesside, and St Fergus in Scotland. Here the corrosion and materials integrity issues are very similar to those encountered in upstream oil and gas environments. Geothermal energy is another technology where existing capability could be transferred relatively easily.

Batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and water electrolysers have significant corrosion issues, with metallic components exposed to elevated potentials and corrosive environments. However, engagement with the corrosion community to date in the development and implementation of these technologies has been limited and there is great scope for improvements in lifetime and cost through input from corrosion scientists and engineers. Corrosion of photovoltaic panels is another area that is receiving increased attention as operators seek to improve the efficiency and extend the lifetime of solar farms. Even well-established low carbon technologies such as hydroelectricity, biofuels, and nuclear power generation, have unresolved corrosion issues that require innovative solutions. Emerging technologies such as solar, thermal, wave and tidal power will simply add to this list. In my own role carrying out research in electrochemistry and corrosion at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), we are already supporting advances in many of these new technologies. A recent highlight has been our discovery that it should be possible to reduce the cost of water electrolysers used for the production of green hydrogen by up to 50%, by enabling substitution of cheaper materials such as carbon and stainless steel for the platinum-coated titanium current collectors in these devices. These are the sorts of innovations that can be achieved when corrosion expertise is included in the conversation.

As the UK’s leading professional society in the field of corrosion protection, ICorr can play a key role in supporting its members and their employers to make the transition to low carbon technologies. We need to be proactive in engaging with stakeholders at all levels, from ensuring that we have the right training programmes in place to meet the demand for new skills, to highlighting the importance of best practice in corrosion management in the cost effectiveness of new technologies.

Knowledge transfer is another important aspect of the role of professional societies. I am a member of the European Federation of Corrosion (EFC) Task Force on Corrosion in Green and Low Carbon Technologies, which is chaired by Steve Paterson of ICorr. Following a successful initial workshop on corrosion in green and low carbon technologies at the virtual EuroCorr 2020 conference, there will be a similar event held during EuroCorr 2021, which will take place from 19-23 September 2021 in Budapest. The workshop will feature keynote lectures from leading industry and academic experts on corrosion in the new energy sector, and provide the opportunity to learn and to exchange information on corrosion issues and mitigation strategies. It is also planned to host a training course on the weekend before the conference to give an introduction to a range of low carbon technologies and their primary corrosion issues. These two events will also be made available online so, even if you can’t attend the conference in person, I would encourage you to participate to hear more about how corrosion professionals can contribute to the rollout of these new technologies.

This is a time of change, which brings with it both challenge and opportunity. As an Institute we need to embrace the energy transition and work with the entire community of international stakeholders to maximise the opportunities for our members. This will involve the development of new training courses, international standards, and for a for transfer of knowledge to ensure we move forward with the appropriate tools to address these challenging issues. I look forward to travelling down this road with you!

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