Inspenet, December 17, 2023.
A technique called environmental transmission electron microscopy (TEM) , which allows researchers to directly observe interacting molecules at the smallest possible scale, is putting a new spin on understanding corrosion at the atomic level .
Professor Guangwen Zhou, a faculty member at Binghamton University’s Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has been investigating the secrets of atomic reactions since joining the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2007. In collaboration with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Brookhaven National Laboratory, he has examined the structural and functional properties of metals, as well as the process of making “green” steel.
Corrosion at the atomic level
His most recent research, titled ” Atomic Mechanisms of Water Vapor-Induced Surface Passivation ,” was published in November in the journal Science Advances . In this paper, Zhou and his team introduced water vapor to clean aluminum samples and observed the reactions occurring on the surface.
” This phenomenon is well known because it occurs in our daily lives ,” he said. “But how do water molecules react with aluminum to form this passivation layer? If you look at the literature, there isn’t much work on how this happens at the atomic scale. If we want to use it forever, we must know because then we will have some way to control it“.
They found a previously unrecorded phenomenon: along with the formation of the aluminum hydroxide layer on the surface, a second amorphous layer was generated beneath it, suggesting the existence of a transport mechanism that disseminates oxygen towards the substrate.
” Most corrosion studies focus on the growth of the passivation layer and how it slows down the corrosion process ,” Zhou said. ” Looking at it from an atomic scale, we believe we can close the knowledge gap .”
Corrosion repair worldwide is estimated at $2.5 trillion annually , equivalent to more than 3% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Therefore, the development of more effective methods to manage the oxidation process would be beneficial from an economic point of view.
Furthermore, detailed knowledge of how the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of a water molecule break down to interact with metals could open the door to solutions in the field of clean energy, which is why the United States Department of Energy financially supported this research and other previous projects led by Zhou.
” If you break down water into oxygen and hydrogen when it recombines, it becomes just water again ,” he said. ” It does not have the pollution of fossil fuels and does not produce carbon dioxide .”
Given the relevance in the field of sustainable energy, the Department of Energy (DOE) has regularly renewed the funding granted to Zhou over the past 15 years.
” I very much appreciate the long-term support for this research ,” Zhou said. ” It is a very important issue for power devices or systems because there are many metal alloys that are used as structural material .”
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