WVU-led innovation team secures patent for new process in a war on corrosion with coal-fired power plant implications
A West Virginia University team of researchers, with a strong assist from WVU’s Office of Technology Transfer, is bringing a new tool to fight an old enemy that costs America billions of dollars of damage to its metal machinery and manufacturing processes. It could also have an impact on improving the way coal-fired power plants work.
The enemy is corrosion (most of us know it as just plain rust) the slow but steady destruction of material that results from chemical reactions.
Manufacturers have a good handle on how to protect our consumer goods from corrosion. Automobile bodies, refrigerators and thousands of other products used by millions of people have one major thing in common: They are all given a good soaking bath in zinc and other finishing coatings that make them pretty and durable.
But the machinery used in the coating process face absolute corrosion havoc from those chemical reactions. That problem shortens the life span of manufacturing equipment and causes breakdowns and work stoppages that cost companies time and money costs that are passed on to all consumers. A study from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration indicates that in one year, the total annual estimated direct cost of corrosion in the nation is about $276 billion.
The WVU breakthrough is a result of effective research and a strong institutional emphasis on taking research results from the lab to the marketplace.
A WVU research team led by Xingbo Liu, associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in WVU’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, has been on the case for several years and came up with a newly-patented sophisticated sensor to monitor factors that cause corrosion in the manufacturing process an accomplishment they hope is a key step in the development of new coatings and processes that will help win the war on corrosion.
“Lots of steel products about 10 percent of them are galvanized,” Liu said. “That’s a process of applying a zinc-aluminum coating to protect against rust usually by dipping the metal in a bath of molten zinc. You need big rolls, bearing, and other supporting structures to get those products in and out of the dip and those components are the ones facing the problems of corrosion from molten zinc-aluminum alloys. We need to create new processes to help protect against corrosion but first, we have to understand what is causing the problems and how it all happens. That’s what this new sensor will be able to do.”
The patent is for “High Temperature Electrochemical Characterization of Molten Metal Corrosion” which was invented by Liu, Jing Xu of Niederschsen, Germany, Yinglu Jiang of WVU, and Frank Goodwin of Chapel Hill, N.C. The patent was issued May 8, 2012 but was filed back in 2008.
According to the abstract released by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, the patent is for “a system and method for the high temperature determination of corrosion characteristics of a molten metal on an alloy which takes place within an insulated furnace.”
WVU’s Office of Technology Transfer played a key role in moving the project through the patent process. Dr. Gary Morris is the associate director of the Transfer but also is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the Statler College. His expertise is in instrumentation, aerodynamics, fluid mechanics, combustion systems, emissions measurements, and rocket propulsion. Morris is also a patent agent registered to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
“I came on board at OTT to help with technology assessments and intellectual property related tasks,” Morris explained. “One of our responsibilities is to review technology disclosures submitted to our office for technical merit and to determine if the disclosed technologies are patentable based on prior art and other factors. We believed that this particular technology was important enough to engage an external patent law firm with expertise in electro-chemistry to file a patent application for us with the Patent office.”
It was a two-year process between when Liu filed a disclosure with the Transfer about the team’s work and the granting of the patent.
“The next step is to work with a marketing firm called Tremonti Consulting out of Ft. Worth, Texas, and Fairfax, Va.,” Morris said. “Through OTT Director Bruce Sparks, WVU contracted with Tremonti to find a market for this technology and others. This is part of our continuing effort to become well-connected with potential industrial partners to commercialize WVU developed technologies.”
But coming up with the concept for monitoring the rate and cause of corrosion is just the beginning of the research road for the WVU experts. The patented technology can be applied in the other high temperature corrosion behavior beyond galvanizing. Armed with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, they hope to evolve their corrosion sensor and make it part of a process that will develop other new technologies focused on reducing the impact that the corrosion process has on machinery and even entire plants and factories.
Liu explained that the Department of Energy is interested in the war on corrosion because of implications for fossil fuel-fired power plants.
The work supports efforts by the Office of Fossil Energy’s Advanced Research—Coal Utilization Science Program to monitor the degradation conditions that impact the overall health of a component or system in the harsh, high-temperature, highly corrosive environments of advanced power plants.
“Fossil fuel power plants generate about two-thirds of the world’s total electricity and are expected to continue to play an important role in the years ahead.” Liu said. “Global energy demands, combined with aging, inefficient power plants and increasingly strict emission standards will require high levels of performance, capacity, efficiency and environmental controls from future generation facilities. That’s why we are focused on the problem.”
Liu and his students and colleagues are no strangers to innovation. Last summer, work that led to development of a new coating that makes solid oxide fuel cell interconnects more durable and productive drew international recognition when R&D Magazine designated the coating as one of the “100 most technologically significant products introduced into the marketplace over the past year.” Previous R&D 100 Award winners include such innovations as HDTV and the automated teller machine.
The new patent is an important step in a quest focused on improving products and lives.
CONTACT: Gerrill Griffith, Research Corp.
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.