Gerald Frankel on Corrosion and Our Failing Infrastructure

In May 2017, we sat down with Gerald Frankel at the 231st ECS Meeting in New Orleans. Frankel is a technical editor of the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, corrosion expert, and open access advocate. Currently, he is a professor of materials science and engineering at The Ohio State University.

Since joining ECS, Jerry has served as chair of the Society’s Corrosion Division and was named ECS fellow in 2006. His research efforts focus on topics ranging from degradation of materials to atmospheric corrosion. In 2012, he was appointed by President Obama to the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.

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Below is an excerpt from the conversation:

Rob Gerth: We met about three years ago, around the same time everything happened in Flint, Michigan. What’s your take on what happened?

Gerald Frankel: It was avoidable. It was a cost-saving measure by some government officials that led to a disaster, affecting a lot of people’s lives.

It’s our drinking water, and water is corrosive. Water will cause corrosion, and our drinking water is treated to reduce the corrosive effects on the pipes that carry it.

The Flint government had a lot of financial issues, and they changed the source of the water from from Lake Michigan to Flint River, and they decided not to do this chemical treatment. We have phosphates, which are not harmful, and they maintain the protective coating on the pipes, corrosion-resistant coating. They saved some money by not doing that. The mains started corroding, and then there was a cascade effect that promoted corrosion of the lead distribution pipes, and so these protective coatings were lost, which allowed the corrosion to occur.

We need to trust that the water we’re drinking. We need to trust that it’s healthy for us and not harming us. It’s really harmful for kids, who were permanently damaged because of it. We need to know that theair  that we breath and clean drinking water are fundamental rights.

RG: Nearly 650,000 bridges in the U.S. alone are in need of repair. How much of an impact does corrosion have on our failing infrastructure?

GF: Well bridges were made of steel, and steel corrodes, so we spend a lot of energy and money trying to beat back nature and it’s quest to put metal back in it’s original state, which is as an oxide ore. We spend a lot of money to take that ore out of the ground, and then to refine it, and then to make something. You expose it out to the cruel world, all the elements of the environment, and again thermodynamics will want to make it go back; it’s a battle. So we know how to paint things and paint works, but only for a certain amount of time. There’s a huge cost of corrosion.

RG: Nuclear waste storage recently made headlines when a tunnel collapsed at the Hanford nuclear waste site in Washington state. Explain how nuclear waste is stored and some of the materials used for this storage and disposal.

GF: Washington state right there is the home to a lot of nuclear waste. There are two general types of nuclear waste: the spent nuclear fuel that comes out of the power plants and the waste that’s the result of making bombs. We spent a lot of energy and time making nuclear bombs, and the product of the processing that was involved there is highly radioactive, and is primarily in the form of liquid that sits underground in tanks in Hanford, Washington. Solids that are mixed in have to be treated in a way, and then put in a repository eventually. They’re mixing them in with glass, and solidifying that in canisters, and in some cases, in ceramic hosts or metal hosts where glass doesn’t work. These materials are waste forms and need to be resistent to degradation. They need to be stable over very long periods of time. The period of performance in the repository, which is maybe 100,000 years, or maybe more; maybe even a million years.

The name of my center is the Center for Performance and Design of Nuclear Waste Forms and Containers, which is a big mouthful, otherwise known as WastePD. We’re studying the degradation mechanisms of these various forms of matter, glass, ceramics, and metals. For the first time, those are coming together in the single center.

RG: You co-authored the first ECS Perspective article in earlier this year, which is a new article type for the Society. What is a Perspective article and why was it the best type of publicaton for you?

GF: This is a category of paper, and the idea is to produce a short article. We were looking to provide a perspective on the field. What’s the status, or in this case, it’s a new perspective on the field. That particular paper that you’re talking about is about pitting corrosion and there’s been a long standing controversy in the field of pitting corrosion about what’s the controlling factors.

(READ: “Localized Corrosion: Passive Film Breakdown vs Pit Growth“)

RG: You’re an advocate for open access. Talk a little about the importance of open access and what sets ECS’s open access initiative apart from others in the field.

GF: Open access just means that these papers, open access papers, are free on the internet so that you can just click on it and get the paper. You don’t have to sign in with your username and password into the library web page. But most open access journals are paid for by this article processing charge, APC. The authors then pay a lot of money to allow their papers to be open access. Instead of subscription fees, publishers make money through these APCs. ECS has what they call platinum open acess, which is free to both the authors and the readers.

Free the Science is the name of this initiative and I think it’s a good name. Science is jailed up and you need to now pay to get it out. And the idea is to open the doors, let it out free, but it’s really open science more than open access, so the Society is interested in more than just open access. Open access is about publishing in papers, but the idea is to do that and then find more ways to get science out to the people in parts of the world that don’t have the funding to get in behind those pay walls and get to the papers. Open science is the goal.


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