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Corrosion of structural steel


The corrosion of structural steel is an electrochemical process that requires the simultaneous presence of moisture
and oxygen. Essentially, the iron in the steel is oxidised to produce rust, which occupies approximately six times the
volume of the original material. The rate at which the corrosion process progresses depends on a number of factors,
but principally the 'micro-climate' immediately surrounding the structure.

Schematic representation of the corrosion mechanism for steel

The corrosion process


The corrosion of steel can be considered as an electrochemical process that occurs in stages. Initial attack occurs at
anodic areas on the surface, where ferrous ions go into solution. Electrons are released from the anode and move
through the metallic structure to the adjacent cathodic sites on the surface, where they combine with oxygen and water
to form hydroxyl ions. These react with the ferrous ions from the anode to produce ferrous hydroxide, which itself is
further oxidised in air to produce hydrated ferric oxide (i.e. red rust.) The sum of these reactions can be represented by
the following equation:

Fe + 3O2 + 2H2O = 2Fe2O3H2O


(Steel) + (Oxygen) + (Water) = Hydrated ferric oxide (Rust)

However, after a period of time, polarisation effects such as the growth of corrosion products on the surface cause the
corrosion process to be stifled. New, reactive anodic sites may be formed thereby allowing further corrosion. In this
case, over long periods, the loss of metal is reasonably uniform over the surface, and this is usually described as
'general corrosion'. A schematic representation of the corrosion mechanism is shown (above right).

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The corrosion process requires the simultaneous presence of water and oxygen. In the absence of either, corrosion
does not occur.

Localised corrosion
Various types of localised corrosion can also occur but these tend not to be significant for structural steelwork.

Bimetallic corrosion

When two dissimilar metals are joined together and in contact with an electrolyte, an electrical current passes between
them and corrosion occurs on the anodic metal. Some metals (e.g. stainless steel) cause low alloy structural steel to
corrode preferentially whereas other metals (e.g. zinc) corrode preferentially themselves, thereby protecting the low
alloy structural steel. The tendency of dissimilar metals to bimetallic corrosion is partly dependent upon their
respective positions in the galvanic series. The further apart the two metals in the series the greater the tendency.

Another aspect that influences bimetallic corrosion is the nature of the electrolyte. Bimetallic corrosion is most serious
for immersed or buried structures, but in less aggressive environments e.g. stainless steel brick support angles
attached to mild steel structural sections, the effect on the steel sections is minimal. No special precautions are
required in most practical building or bridge situations. For greater risk situations, gaskets, sleeves and similar
electrically insulating materials should be used. Alternatively the application of a suitable paint system over the
assembled joint is also effective.

The tendency for bimetallic corrosion is also influenced by the relative surface areas of the cathodic and anodic metals
(Ac/Aa). In simple terms, the greater the Ac/Aa ratio, the greater the tendency for bimetallic corrosion.

General galvanic series

Anodic end (More prone to corrosion)

Magnesium
Zinc
Aluminium
Carbon & Low Alloy (Structural) Steels
Cast Iron
Lead
Tin
Copper, Brass, Bronze
Nickel (Passive)
Titanium
Stainless Steels 430/304/316 (In the passive state)

Cathodic end (Less prone to corrosion)

Pitting corrosion

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Pitted steel surface

In some circumstances the attack on the original anodic area is not stifled and continues deep into the metal, forming a
corrosion pit. Pitting more often occurs with low alloy structural steels in continually wet conditions or buried in soil
rather than those exposed in air. Hence, pitting corrosion is rarely encountered on typical modern steel buildings or
bridges.

Crevice corrosion

Crevices can be formed by design detailing, welding, surface debris, etc. Available oxygen in the crevice is quickly
used by the corrosion process and, because of limited access, cannot be replaced. The entrance to the crevice
becomes cathodic, since it can satisfy the oxygen-demanding cathode reaction. The tip of the crevice becomes a
localised anode and high corrosion rates occur at this point.

Corrosion rates
The principle factors that determine the rate of corrosion of steel in air are:

Time of wetness
Atmospheric pollution

Time of wetness

This is the proportion of total time during which the surface is wet, due to rainfall, condensation etc. It follows,
therefore, that for unprotected steel in dry environments e.g. inside heated buildings, corrosion will be minimal due to
the low availability of water. The requirement for the application of paints or coatings becomes unnecessary other than
for appearance or fire protection purposes.

Atmospheric pollution

The type and amount of atmospheric pollution and contaminants (e.g. sulphates, chlorides, dust etc.)

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Sulphates

These originate from sulphur dioxide gas produced during the combustion of fossil fuels, e.g. sulphur bearing oils and
coal. The sulphur dioxide gas reacts with water or moisture in the atmosphere to form sulphurous and sulphuric acids.
Industrial environments are a prime source of sulphur dioxide.

Chlorides

These are mainly present in marine environments. The highest concentration of chlorides is to be found in coastal
regions and there is a rapid reduction moving inland. In the UK there is evidence to suggest that a 2 kilometre strip
around the coast can be considered as being in a marine environment.

Both sulphates and chlorides increase corrosion rates. They react with the surface of the steel to produce soluble salts
of iron, which can concentrate in pits and are themselves corrosive.

Within a given local environment, corrosion rates can vary markedly, due to effects of sheltering and prevailing winds
etc. It is therefore the 'micro-climate' immediately surrounding the structure, which determines corrosion rates for
practical purposes. Because of variations in atmospheric environments, corrosion rate data cannot be generalised.
However, environments can be broadly classified, and corresponding measured steel corrosion rates provide a useful
indication of likely corrosion rates. More information can be found in BS EN ISO 12944-2[1] and BS EN ISO 9223[2].

Atmospheric corrosivity categories and examples of typical environments (BS EN ISO 12944-2[1])

Corros Low-carbon steel Examples of typical environments (informative


ivity Thickness loss only)
catego (μm)a
ry Exterior Interior

C1 ≤ 1.3 - Heated buildings with clean


very atmospheres, e.g. offices, shops,
low schools, hotels

C2 > 1.3 to 25 Atmospheres with low level of Unheated buildings where


low pollution: mostly rural areas condensation can occur, e.g. depots,
sports halls

C3 > 25 to 50 Urban and industrial atmospheres, Production rooms with high humidity
medium moderate sulphur dioxide pollution; and some air pollution, e.g. food-
coastal area with low salinity processing plants, laundries,
breweries, dairies

C4 > 50 to 80 Industrial areas and coastal areas Chemical plants, swimming pools,
high with moderate salinity coastal ship and boatyards

C5 > 80 to 200 Industrial areas with high humidity Buildings or areas with almost
very and aggressive atmosphere and permanent condensation and high
high coastal areas with high salinity pollution

CX > 200 to 700 Offshore areas with high salinity and Industrial areas with extreme
extreme industrial areas with extreme humidity and aggressive atmosphere
humidity and aggressive atmosphere
and sub-tropical and tropical
atmospheres

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Notes:

1μm (1 micron) = 0.001mm


a
The thickness loss values are after the first year of exposure. Losses may reduce over subsequent years.

The loss values used for the corrosivity categories are identical to those given in BS EN ISO 9223[2].

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References
1. ↑ 1.01.1 BS EN ISO 12944-2: 2017, Paints and varnishes – Corrosion protection of steel structures by
protective paint systems – Part 2: Classification of environments, BSI

2. ↑ 2.02.1 BS EN ISO 9223: 2012, Corrosion of metals and alloys – Corrosivity of atmospheres – Classification,
determination and estimation. BSI

Resources
Steel Buildings, 2003, The British Constructional Steelwork Association Ltd.
Chapter 12 – Corrosion Protection

Further reading
D.Deacon & R.Hudson (2012), Steel Designer’s Manual (7th Edition), Chapter 36 - Corrosion and corrosion
prevention, The Steel Construction Institute.
D.A. Bayliss & D.H.Deacon (2002), Steelwork Corrosion Control (2nd edition), Spon Press.
PD 6484:1979, Commentary on corrosion at bimetallic contacts and its alleviation, British Standards
Institution.

See also
Influence of design on corrosion
Surface preparation
Paint coatings
Standard corrosion protection systems for buildings
Metallic coatings
Appropriate specifications
Inspection and quality control

CPD
Corrosion protection

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