‘Rust’ chronicles humankind’s incessant battle with corrosion

In costly fight against unwanted oxidation, people have few tools

rust on green metal

THIS IS WAR  Rust recounts the unending battle between humans and corrosion, which each year costs the United States an estimated $437 billion — more than all natural disasters combined.

Darren Hester/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Jonathan Waldman
Simon & Schuster, $26.95

The No. 1 threat to the U.S. Navy isn’t a foreign adversary. It’s corrosion. And many admirals say they’re losing the battle. What the Department of Defense spends dealing with corrosion each year would buy two brand new aircraft carriers or a few dozen fighter jets. The annual bill for the United States as a whole is an estimated $437 billion — about 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Corrosion’s cost is, in fact, higher than that of all natural disasters combined.

In Rust, science writer Jonathan Waldman relates note-worthy episodes from the war with corrosion — which, presumably, has plagued humankind since the Iron Age. Rust, to be precise, results from the oxidation of iron. Corrosion, a more general term (and the broader subject of this fascinating, but too-restrictively titled book), is oxidation that afflicts all but a handful of particularly rare metals.

There are precious few weapons that can fight corrosion, Waldman notes. Some include the selective electrification of an object’s components to counteract oxidation’s flow of electrons. Others consist of paint or other coatings on metal that keep oxygen out. Waldman suggests that some of the most precisely engineered objects on the planet are the billions of aluminum beverage cans whose liners must protect them from corrosive liquids, some of which have a pH approaching that of battery acid.

Waldman’s cast of characters includes people who developed stainless steel in the early 1900s, others who rehabbed the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s, and those who today search for corrosion inside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline using sensor-toting robots. He weaves a wonderfully diverse tapestry that honors the myriad scientists and engineers who have doggedly taken on one of nature’s most destructive forces.

Yet corrosion isn’t always a bad thing, Waldman notes. Iron and oxygen love each other so much that sachets full of the powdered metal are placed inside sealed time capsules. There, the iron scrubs the ruinous gas from the air, protecting the capsules’ artifacts.

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