Surface Decay a Critical and Expensive Issue
The issue of deteriorating materials is not new. Shoesmith himself started researching materials degradation when he worked for Atomic Energy of Canada (now Canadian Nuclear Laboratories) some 30 years ago.
“It’s always been a critical and expensive issue, especially for the nuclear industry, but other industries haven’t had to pay as much attention,” he says.
“Not all degradation starts on the surface, but the majority does,” Shoesmith says. “A critical first step is to understand the surface chemistry of the material, how it responds to a specific environment and how the corrosion process starts.”
Ultimately, the research aims to provide a framework that will lead to:
Ideally, the research will enable designing materials that won’t corrode under the harshest and aggressive environments. Crucial to this is knowing how damage could occur and designing methods to stop or control it.
“Once nuclear waste containers are buried, you’re probably not going to look at them again,” Shoesmith explains. “You need to know from the beginning that you have a good system, with multiple barriers that remain intact long enough to allow radioactivity to decay to a non-toxic level.”
Research into the consequences of shutting down and restarting equipment – critical with nuclear reactors, for example – includes checking for material degradation to see if continued operation is safe. The environment also plays a role, as with understanding how pipeline corrosion might change over a hot, dry summer, a wet spring and fall and a cold winter.
Companies need solid evidence that shows a material will last as long as required. “The accuracy of the guidelines we offer is absolutely critical, and that’s a challenge,” Shoesmith says. “Imagine if you have a potential plumbing problem at home; it’s no help if the plumber says it might fail tomorrow, or in two years.
The research team will demonstrate how materials might degrade in their intended use or environment, or when operational or exposure conditions change. This will confirm if a material suits the application or could be improved.