Transcript: Meet Narasi Sridhar
Narasi Sridhar, CEO of MC Consult LLC, discusses some of the highlights from his 40-year career. He discusses how creativity and openness to possibilities in your career can lead you to unexpected places, such as working on a project for NASA to detect past life on Mars with Raman spectroscopy. Other topics in this episode of the CORROSION journal Interview Series include the importance of mentors and the need for risk management.
Sammy Miles: Thanks for joining me today, Sridhar.
Narasi Sridhar: Thank you for inviting me.
SM: You’ve had a 40-plus-year career in different areas of corrosion risk management, sustainable design, energy storage devices, and corrosion modeling, just to name a few of the many things you’ve worked on over the years. To start us off, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you first get into corrosion?
NS: When I was in high school, I mainly loved physics. My parents were good enough to let me have a lab in the house, and I did a lot of physics experiments at home. One of them was electrochemistry. Corrosion was the very last thing I thought I would do in my life. I went to undergraduate school in engineering, Indian Institute of Technology in Madras. Now it’s called Chennai.
In those days, it was a 5-year program, and the fifth year I did a project mostly on physical metallurgy because that was close to physics that I wanted to do. At the end of the project, which was really focused on looking at using x-ray diffraction to study the structure of metals, I decided to come to the U.S. Mainly, I was getting tired of my hometown. I wanted to explore the wider world. I ended up in Virginia Tech, 1975, working for a professor, Chuck Houska, who was also doing x-ray diffraction, so it was close to what I had done at undergraduate. It seemed like a natural step for me. But then along came another professor, Mac Louthan. He just started at Virginia Tech. He was actually a senior guy at Savannah River Labs. Mac was a wonderful speaker. He convinced me that I should be working in hydrogen embrittlement instead of x-ray diffraction. So I ended up working in hydrogen embrittlement for Mac, building high-pressure hydrogen systems.
Then two years later, Mac came to me and said, “You should really think of going to University of Notre Dame,” mainly because he got his Ph.D. at Notre Dame. He said, “And Notre Dame has a better football team than Virginia Tech.” And in those days, that was true. Not anymore. I ended up going to Notre Dame. At the time, I looked up the faculty members at Notre Dame, and Nick Fiore, who I was going to work for, had done a lot of interesting work on looking at defects in metals at Carnegie Mellon. I read his papers, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to go to Nick and say that I really wanted to work on how I can look at defects in metals.” I was getting a little tired of hydrogen embrittlement anyway.
So I went to Notre Dame and saw Nick, and I talked to him about defects in metals. Nick said, “Well, I don’t have any money for that, but I have money on hydrogen embrittlement. Would you want to work on it?” I ended up working on hydrogen embrittlement for Nick for 4 years. This was on nickel-base alloys. At the end of my Ph.D., there was a company called Cabot Corporation, which eventually became Haynes International. They had an interest in somebody knowledgeable about nickel-base alloys and hydrogen embrittlement, and they were in Indiana, where Notre Dame was. They came and interviewed me and were good enough to offer me a job.
I had a couple other offers, but I decided to take the offer from Cabot, which was actually a godsend for me because the first time I moved into a corrosion group, I had not had much exposure to corrosion. Herb Uhlig from MIT used to come to Notre Dame and offer a summer course in corrosion, but I never took it. I had very little exposure to corrosion, but Haynes had a very powerful corrosion group in those days. There was Aziz Asphahani, was the head of the lab. Juri Kolts and Paul Manning and a number of other people, so I had quite a few mentors. They basically said, “Well, we are developing corrosion alloys, nickel-base alloys and stainless steels, and there’s an opportunity for you to develop some new alloys.” That was a fabulous experience. I worked on some duplex stainless steels and nickel-base alloys. Did a lot of technical assistance and client assistance as well.
But after about 9 years, I was feeling that I needed to broaden my horizon. I was sort of wedded to corrosion by that time. But I was looking for someplace where it was more than nickel-base alloys and stainless steels. Fortunately, at that time I was also pretty active in NACE, and I was a chair for this committee — in those days, we went by different committee numbers than now — but it was a D5A committee for chemical process industries. I was chair for D5A17, which is a task group for duplex stainless steels. Mike Stryker was the chair, and I was the vice chair. When he decided to move off, I became chair. But I’d invited Mike to come to Haynes to give a talk one day. Driving him back to the airport, he said, “There’s these guys in San Antonio in Southwest Research Institute. They are looking for a corrosion engineer. You’ll be working on things different than nickel-base alloys and stainless steel development. This will be on nuclear waste and how to do life prediction of these containers.” I was pretty interested. Mike, turned out he was on the advisory committee for this unit, and so he perhaps recommended me.
So I got a job in San Antonio, and that was another really wonderful opportunity for me because, first of all, I had developed a new mentor in Southwest Research, a guy by the name of Gustavo Cragnolino. He introduced me to a whole new world of corrosion guys, like Digby Macdonald and Roger Staehle and so on. Also, I had a good opportunity to interact with people outside the corrosion field because nuclear waste involves geochemistry and geology, vulcanology, hydrology, all those ologies. I had a great experience working with a much broader range of people than I had experienced before. That was a great experience.
Around about 2000, we ran out of money, so I had to develop new funding sources for my group. I started working on pipeline and oil and gas problems and moved to another division within Southwest Research. At the time, we had also a major program for U.S. Marine Corps on corrosion prevention and control, working on sensors and Raman spectroscopy and things like that. I had a pretty interesting project in NASA, with life on Mars. I was doing some pretty interesting stuff. Then, in about 2007, there was an opportunity at DNV in Columbus to head up their materials program in their strategic research and innovation.
Along with that opportunity came a possibility to interact with Ohio State Fontana Corrosion Center with Jerry Frankel, so I just couldn’t pass that up. I had had some previous interactions with Ohio State when I was at Haynes, so it was a great opportunity to reconnect, be with a very big group of corrosion folks at both DNV and also at Ohio State. That was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn other things. Also, I was looking for international experience, and DNV was a really Norwegian company in those days. That was another experience, working with groups in Norway and Europe.
Then, about 2020, I decided to not work in a corporate structure and have my own consulting company, so I started MC Consult. I still work as a part-time research faculty at Ohio State Fontana Corrosion Center. That’s, in short, my career in corrosion.
SM: Fantastic. So you’ve worked in a whole bunch of different areas over the years then. Which has been your favorite? What was your favorite? I know you said hydrogen embrittlement you kind of got tired of at a different point. Has any stood out to you as the favorite to work on?
NS: I loved all the projects I worked on, so it’s really difficult to say, “This is my favorite.” But two projects were really fun, and neither of them were corrosion oriented. The first one was a project I did for NASA, looking at how to detect past life on Mars. We were doing a lot of work in corrosion, looking at Raman spectroscopy, which is a spectroscopy where you shine a laser light on a surface and the vibration of molecules on the surface affects how the laser scatters from the surface. You detect the scattered light, and you can tell something about the molecules on the surface. We had been doing some corrosion work.
Darrell Dunn, at the time, in my group, was very instrumental. One of my fortunate hires was Darrell, came out of University of Arizona. Extraordinary experimentalist. He was doing some really nifty stuff. Then I saw an opportunity where I thought, “We could use the spectroscopy as a tool when they send a robot to Mars.” Mars had past life, possibly. We don’t know for sure. But it all died because of ultraviolet radiation hitting Mars. But I thought maybe there could be some remnant molecules of this organic species present, along with a mixture of sand and so on. I told Darrell and some other folks at Southwest Research that we should write a proposal to NASA that we can do this Raman spectroscopy and put it on a Rover and do this. They all thought I was totally out of my mind. But NASA decided that this was a little bit from the left field, so they decided to award us a big research project.
That was one of my fun projects, because we developed a technique [where] we can tell extremely small concentrations of organic molecules present with mixtures of sand. One of the fellows at Southwest Research built this “Martian chamber,” we call it, which simulated the Martian atmosphere. We were pretty successful, and NASA, in fact, was interested to go to the next phase of building a probe to test it on a Rover. But by that time, I’d left Southwest Research for DNV, so I don't know whatever happened to it. They didn’t fund it to the Rover because a current Rover doesn’t have Raman. It has other testing systems that’s still on Mars. To me, that was — I would never think of doing this, but sometimes you have to have the courage to do something different.
Then at the end of my stay at Southwest Research, I thought, “Well, I knew about electrochemistry, and corrosion is always sort of a negative in the sense that you are trying to prevent something bad happening. How can you use electrochemistry to do something good?” I thought we can convert CO2 to end-use chemicals that are valuable, and you can use electrochemistry to reduce CO2 — supply electrons to CO2 and it converts into other chemicals. DNV was somewhat reluctant, but since I was heading up the research and innovation program, I had some internal money. We had a very nice group. I had three guys eventually working on it that did some really interesting catalyst development to convert CO2 to formic acid.
I also had some collaboration with Jerry Frankel at Ohio State do some research on how catalysts work. To me, that was a really fun project because we developed this reactor, we put it in a trailer that had a solar panel so we could use renewable electricity to supply electrons to CO2. One of the guys in my group, Davion Hill, located this truck that was actually used as a party vehicle. If you want to have a party in a remote area, in a barn somewhere, and you don’t have electricity, you can take this truck. It has solar panel. You can hook up music and whatever else you want to hook up to. He said, “Okay, we can convert this. Put an electrochemical reactor in there.” So we traipsed it around to different conventions. That was allowed. You asked me about — those two projects were really fun and I look forward to the next, tomorrow, for those projects.
SM: The great thing about those is it shows that, with whatever skill set you develop over your career, there are different things you can do that are so outside of the box. You're not pigeon-holed into only doing certain projects if you're willing to go out on a limb and have some fun, if you will.
NS: Yes, I think overcome a lot of people saying, “You can’t do that.” There are some things you cannot truly do. We cannot defy nature. But I think if it is possible and you have imagination, you can do things.
SM: And why not?
SM: That’s fantastic. One of the things I wanted to ask you about is how has the industry changed over the course of your career? Have there been some of the areas where either the research funding has changed or the way the techniques are applied are different or —?
NS: I look back to my first joining NACE. I joined NACE in 1981. I may have been a student member before that, but I don’t remember. But 1981, when I first joined NACE, I counted probably about 25 major industrial research labs involved in corrosion. That means labs that had more than a couple Ph.D.s and a lab of technicians. There were almost 25 major industrial labs involved in corrosion. Then, of course, there were national labs and universities also doing research.
To me, NACE, at the time, was in that way different because there was a lot more research being presented and a lot more opportunities to do research and a lot more interactions in the committees on research activities. If I look at today, there may be less than a handful of major industrial research labs. There are still university labs. There are still some national labs that are doing research, and there may be a good bit of research being done overseas beyond U.S., Canada, and Europe. But that has altered, I think, the dynamics. Funding wise, there is less research funding at a national level in corrosion. It’s not a sexy field. There have been some exceptions. I think Jerry Frankel had this Energy Frontier Research Center over the last two years that focused on corrosion. I think there was some really good research done. But otherwise, a lot of the research funding is sort of, you have to develop, you have to work hard at getting research. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But I think the opportunities have not — there are not that many big opportunities anymore in the corrosion field. So that’s been a challenge.
At the same time, the corrosion problems haven’t gone away. If you look at — NACE did the cost of corrosion study — but at the same time, if you look at the American Society of Civil Engineers, they put out a score sheet of the nation’s infrastructure. They gave the U.S. infrastructure a C+ rating, if I remember right. Or maybe even a C rating, which means we are failing badly. I think there is need for research, and I think part of our job is to keep that front and center for people who are making funding decisions.
SM: Right. And keep advocating for it and highlight the need.
NS: Yes, right.
SM: One thing that I wanted to ask you is, Do you have any advice for those early in their career?
NS: Yes. I think, mainly I would say three things. One is be open to possibilities. Don’t rule out possibilities. Second thing is go and find a mentor or more than one mentor. I think if I look back at my career, I had some really wonderful mentors. Some of them I didn’t realize were my mentors till afterwards. But early on, at Notre Dame, I had Jim Donovan who came from Savannah River National Labs, who inspired me about corrosion and metallurgy quite a bit through our conversations. At Haynes, or Cabot Corporation in those days, I had several mentors. Then at Southwest Research as well as at DNV, I had mentors. Some of my mentors were actually my own staff. Mentor doesn’t mean it’s somebody much older than you that’s giving you wise advice. They could be somebody that can really influence the way you think. I think my success has been related to those mentors.
The last thing is collaborators. For me, I think a lot of the work I’ve done is through both fortuitous and planned collaborations. I mentioned this NASA project on Raman spectroscopy. That was through purely fortuitous means because I was sitting in a cafeteria having lunch and a big, tall Texan, Ralph Hill, sat next to me. He had a thick Texas accent. And he was curious about who I am and what I’m doing, and I explained to him I’m a corrosion engineer. I asked him what Ralph is doing. It turned out his daughter and my daughter were in the same dance class, which we didn’t know about that. Well, he said he’s doing laser Raman spectroscopy, and I didn’t know anything about it. So I asked him, and through a series of conversation, I got really interested in using it for corrosion studies. That was a purely fortuitous circumstance there, sitting in the cafeteria and having lunch. I’ve sort of tried to foster that set of fortuitous meeting of people. Too bad we don’t have that now with the COVID, but hopefully when we get back in conferences, that would be a really important thing.
SM: The in-person networking and talking and just meeting people and hearing new ideas.
NS: Exactly. NACE used to have a lot of hospitality suites in the early days of coming to NACE. We had a big, huge board with all the hospitality suites, and of course, for free lunch and dinner, too. But that also fostered a lot of purely coincidental meetings of people.
SM: Right. I think some of those relationships are how you not only find what’s your next project but future jobs, future careers, even, if you're changing what you're working on. I think that’s absolutely important.
NS: Yes, and committee activities is something I — when I was a younger engineer, coming into NACE first, my boss, Paul Manning at the time, said, “The first thing you should do is just go and find out what committees you can belong to, and here is a list of some committees that are relevant to our company.” The chemical process industry in those days was very big in NACE. They were one of our big client bases. So I decided to become a member of a couple of the committees and got into task groups. Through that, I met a lot of people as well. That was really important for me, for my career. So I think another advice would be committee membership is really important for a younger person coming into the field.
SM: That’s good advice. We’re nearing the end of our time, so before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to add?
NS: No, I think we’ve talked about a lot of things. I think the last thing I wanted to say something about risk management because that’s something that I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on in the last few years. I feel that we do a lot of development of different technologies in the corrosion world. We develop new alloys. We have ways of monitoring corrosion and so on. But ultimately, our job is to safeguard society from failures due to corrosion. There are a lot of uncertainties associated with how you safeguard society, because a lot of information is either scattered or not available. That lends itself to assessing the risk of different engineered systems and how they interface with workers as well as the general community. You can do qualitative risk assessment, but really that’s not as useful as providing real numbers to people on how does something affect them.
That’s something I’ve focused a lot on. I think that is really important, also, in bringing together the corrosion community because not one person has all the knowledge that is required to do risk assessment. You need to put a team of people together with diverse perspectives. It doesn’t have to be just corrosion. It could be perspectives about management, about financial aspects and so on and so forth. That’s a certain area that I’d like to see more emphasis in the community.
SM: And it’s going to continue to be increasingly important as we move forward, from everything — as you mentioned earlier, the aging infrastructure and everything else. There’s going to be challenges that present themselves along the way. So risk management will just be more and more important as time goes by.
NS: Correct. You mentioned the aging infrastructure, and we have a lot of systems that have been developed back in the ’80s that still need to be operating. I worked on underground nuclear waste storage. Those tanks were built in 1940s through ’70s, and they are required to be intact for the next 40 or some years. I think future generations will also have to deal with those risks.
SM: Excellent. One quick question. I’m going to borrow a feature from the CoatingsPro Interview Series before we wrap up. CoatingsPro is one of our sister publications at AMPP, and they’ve been adding a series of rapid-fire questions at the end to provide listeners with the opportunity to get to know our guests a little better. You’ve already kind of touched on this, but who were some of your mentors over your career?
NS: Oh, I’ve had a lot of mentors, not just one, as I mentioned before. Certainly, the early stage of my career, Juri Kolts and Paul Manning at Haynes were my mentors in the sense that they introduced me to corrosion and alloy development. When I went to Southwest Research, the late Gustavo Cragnolino was a true mentor because he was very selfless and introduced me to a lot of his knowledge base. And at DNV, I’ve had a number of mentors over the years, too many to name. Some of my mentors were non-corrosion and non-metallurgists, actually. They taught me how to think about problems and going beyond what I do. Let me leave it at that.
SM: Okay. Fantastic. If any of our listeners want to get in touch with you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
NS: Well, they can certainly go to the website of my consulting company, www.mcconsultco.com. They can find my email there and certainly contact me by email.