As a corrosion scientist, I view corrosion in everyday life differently than many people. Corrosion extends beyond rusting bicycles, cars, and household plumbing; having spent all my working life dealing with corrosion, I am still excited by how manifold the corrosion-related research questions can be. Solving a corrosion problem may require detective skills, as the origin of the problem is not always found amongst the usual suspects (such as crevices and chlorides). For me, this makes metals and alloys that corrode far more interesting than materials with extreme corrosion resistance.
During my graduate studies in materials science in Finland, I began my first research project relating to corrosion—specifically focused on icebreakers. After a few struggles, related to cold winter, harsh conditions for field testing, as well as the massive size of my samples (albeit much smaller than a real icebreaker), not only did I have my final degree, but moreover I had learned tremendously about marine corrosion, stainless steels, welds, and cathodic corrosion protection, and even more on how to cope with experimental challenges. Most importantly, I learned how different, small pieces of research can contribute to solving large engineering challenges. This is the delight of doing corrosion research: we can tackle fundamental reaction mechanisms and fulfill our scientific curiosity, and at the same time promote safe, durable, and sustainable use of materials in diverse applications.
By now, one could assume that we should already know everything on “why metals corrode” and that failures are only due to inadequate materials selection, wrong design, or insufficient maintenance. However, increasing demands for materials properties (for instance: stronger, smaller, and/or multifunctional) lead to development of novel materials (for example, nanostructured alloys), and a safe application of these materials requires understanding of the critical material and environmental factors on possible corrosion modes. Moreover, new applications for classic materials can bring about new challenges for the materials property profile, including the corrosion behavior.
Since my first corrosion-related projects, most of my research has been related to cars, hip implants and stents, turbine blades, and airplanes. My work targets the reduction of costs, for instance, due to premature failure of engineering structures, and also prevention of risks to our safety and health. An example of the importance of corrosion in human health is demonstrated by the increasing number of patients with biomedical implants, where metal release by corrosion in the human body may negatively influence the surrounding biological system and corrosion can contribute to implant failure. The same corrosion processes can also be harnessed for the growing demand for biodegradable implants, where the low corrosion resistance of materials such as Mg is exploited. Here, continuous corrosion with a controlled and time-adjusted degradation rate is in demand.
Looking back on my choice all those years ago to become a corrosion scientist, my career has been highly rewarding. In addition to the continuing excitement in solving corrosion problems and hence contributing to a sustainable future, there are many other rewards of being a researcher. Not only has my life been enriched by living in different countries, most importantly I have had the privilege to work together and collaborate with many inspiring corrosion scientists (and others) and meet an incredible number of colleagues from near and far. As a university educator, I have had the pleasure to guide the next generation of engineers and scientists, and help them understand that corrosion behavior and durability need to be considered in the portfolio of a materials performance profile.
During my journey from a young student to a more senior researcher in the fascinating community of corrosion scientists, I have seen a number of changes in not only the research topics, but also in the researchers. For example, the number of female researchers in the field has well increased (as in all engineering disciplines). As we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day on June 23, I am reminded there are no natural obstacles restricting gender equality in corrosion. Looking back, I hardly ever experienced being (negatively) challenged by my gender. Instead, I have encountered challenging but highly fascinating research questions. These have been highly inspiring, requiring life-long learning. Corrosion can take place everywhere and can be highly destructive; therefore, diversity of researchers can help to solve these challenges efficiently.
As you read this month’s issue, covering topics ranging from corrosion mechanisms to materials properties to performance of coatings and inhibitors, notice the cross section of women and men from around the world seeking to maintain a solid understanding of corrosion mechanisms and targeted protection methods to reduce risks to society from corrosion.