Zinc: The Essential Element in Corrosion Protection
Zinc, a metallic element found in the Earth’s crust, plays a vital role in modern industry, particularly in corrosion protection. Its unique properties and applications have made it an indispensable material. This article delves into the makeup of zinc, its position in the periodic table, its role in preventing corrosion, various application methods, historical context, and safety considerations.
Historical Perspective and Invention
Zinc’s history dates back to ancient times, with evidence of its use in alloys like brass as early as 1000 BC. However, the method of extracting and processing zinc was not understood until much later. The credit for the discovery of metallic zinc is often given to the German chemist Andreas Marggraf in 1746. The industrial process of galvanising iron was developed in the 19th century, revolutionising the use of zinc for corrosion protection.
Zinc’s Place in the Periodic Table and Its Composition
Zinc is represented by the symbol ‘Zn’ and holds atomic number 30 in the periodic table. It’s classified as a transition metal, sharing properties with other metals like iron and copper. Zinc is moderately reactive, forming compounds with various elements and is known for its bluish-silver appearance.
In terms of atomic structure, zinc has an atomic mass of about 65.38 u. It has 30 protons and electrons, with the number of neutrons varying among its isotopes. The most common isotope is Zinc-64.
Zinc’s Role in Corrosion Protection
Zinc’s most notable property is its ability to protect metals from corrosion through galvanic action. When zinc is applied to steel, it acts as a sacrificial anode. This means it corrodes preferentially, protecting the underlying metal. This process is a direct result of zinc’s position in the electrochemical series, where it is more reactive than iron.
Testing and Results
Numerous studies have demonstrated zinc’s effectiveness in corrosion protection. For example, salt spray tests, commonly used to assess corrosion resistance, have consistently shown that zinc-coated steel can withstand corrosion for significantly longer periods than untreated steel.
The effectiveness of zinc in corrosion protection has been extensively studied through various tests. These tests often simulate the harsh conditions metals might face in real-world environments.
Here are some examples:
1. Salt Spray Test (ASTM B117)
The Salt Spray Test is one of the most common methods for assessing the corrosion resistance of zinc coatings. In this test, coated samples are exposed to a saline mist environment. The time until the first signs of rust (red rust for steel) appear is recorded. For example, hot-dip galvanised steel can show no signs of red rust for over 1,000 hours in such a test, significantly outperforming untreated steel.
2. Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy (EIS)
EIS is a more sophisticated method used to study the corrosion behaviour of zinc coatings. It measures the impedance of a coated metal surface over a range of frequencies to determine its resistance to electrochemical processes. Results from EIS tests often demonstrate how zinc coatings can significantly increase the impedance, indicating a higher resistance to corrosion.
3. Humidity Tests (ASTM D2247)
In humidity tests, zinc-coated samples are subjected to prolonged periods of high humidity to simulate exposure to moist environments. These tests have shown that zinc coatings can effectively prevent the underlying metal from corroding even after hundreds of hours in a highly humid environment.
4. Kesternich Test (DIN 50018)
This test simulates acid rain or industrial atmospheric conditions and is particularly relevant for buildings and structures. In a Kesternich cycle, samples are exposed to a controlled acidic environment. Hot-dip galvanised coatings have been shown to withstand numerous cycles without significant corrosion, indicating their effectiveness in acidic environments.
5. Cyclic Corrosion Testing (CCT)
CCT involves subjecting zinc-coated materials to a series of varying conditions, including humidity, UV light, and salt spray, simulating real-world cyclic conditions. Zinc coatings consistently exhibit a high level of resistance to corrosion in CCT, outlasting many alternative protective coatings.
Real-world Longevity Studies
Beyond laboratory tests, real-world studies also showcase zinc’s effectiveness. For instance, galvanised steel structures like bridges and guardrails have been observed to remain free of significant corrosion for several decades, even in harsh environments.
Methods of Applying Zinc for Corrosion Protection
Hot Dip Galvanizing
Hot dip galvanising involves immersing steel in a bath of molten zinc. This method creates a robust, multi-layered zinc-iron alloy coating, providing excellent corrosion protection. The process is widely used in construction and manufacturing.
Hot Zinc Spray / Flame Gun
Hot zinc spray, or thermal spraying, involves melting zinc powder or wire and spraying it onto a substrate. This method is highly versatile and can be applied to complex structures. It’s used in situations where hot dip galvanising is impractical.
Zinc-rich primers are used in painting and coating applications. These primers contain a high percentage of metallic zinc dust and are used as an initial layer to provide cathodic protection to the steel surface.
Safety and Health Considerations
While zinc is crucial in various applications, it’s important to consider safety, particularly regarding inhalation. Inhaling zinc oxide fumes, which can occur during welding or cutting galvanised materials, can lead to ‘zinc flu’ or metal fume fever. This condition presents flu-like symptoms and is generally a short-term issue but highlights the need for adequate ventilation and protective measures in environments where zinc fumes may be present.
Zinc’s unique properties and applications make it an essential material in the fight against corrosion. Its effectiveness, tested and proven over centuries, alongside its versatile application methods, ensures its continued relevance in various industries. However, it’s crucial to balance its benefits with mindful safety practices to protect those who work with this remarkable element. Zinc, both historically and presently, stands as a testament to human ingenuity in material science and industrial advancement. At NSP Coatings, we specialise in applying Zinc by Hot Zinc Spray on-site at our factory in Kent. We use this method above all others as we think it gives superior coverage and corrosion protection, and it is an efficient way of coating metals for us as it requires no fettling after application.
If you are interested to know how we can protect your items, please contact us.