Tiny electrodes tucked away in hard-to-reach cracks and crevices of long pipelines are poised to change a costly and resource-intensive part of several industries from aerospace to mining to the oil game: fighting corrosion. Corrosion is a multi-billion dollar problem worldwide, and we’re only just starting to gather information about how and why it occurs. Silver/silver chloride electrodes of the same kind used by the biotech industry turn out to make excellent corrosion sensors, and they’ve become the first line of information gathering about the ‘enemy within’.
The sensors tell researchers where and when corrosion occurs. Combined with other equipment that detects humidity, temperature, salinity, wind spped and direction, rainfall, and other local conditions, they allow researchers to record what conditions corrosion happens under and how persistent the corrosion is once it begins.
Recent studies estimate that the US spends more than $25 billion every year on monitoring, removing, and preventing corrosion in its pipes and tanks. The current methods of looking for corrosion most often involve robots that trundle through the pipelines carrying cameras and lights, with remote operators trained to spot the signs of corrosion through the camera. The new corrosion sensors, if they become common, have the potential to dramatically reduce the costs of that operation, which include everything from paying for the expert operator to shutting down the pipeline while the inspection occurs.
As the groups using these sensors worldwide — from the deserts of Saudi Arabia to the wastelands of Alaska and in the depths of ocean — collaborate and share their data, a comprehensive model of corrosive forces is slowly coming together. A model that, we hope, can be used to create pipes, tanks, and perhaps even paints that will resist corrosion much more effectively than our current oil infrastructure.
The “pipe dream” is to miniaturize the sensors and have them communicate wirelessly at such a small size that they can be mixed into the anti-corrosive paint itself, doubling the purpose and the effectiveness of the simple job of painting the outside of the tanks and pipes. That technology may well still be a decade or more away, however.