Saturday, February 18, 2017

Rust by Jonathan Waldman

It can be tough to be an engineer. You live in a world in which everything falls apart in spite of your best efforts. Constraints abound, not the least of which is that even the most enduring materials last only so long. If economics is the dismal science, engineering is the dismal art.

If the technical aspects of rust, more broadly corrosion, do not impress most readers, the economic aspects of it might. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) estimated in 2011 that it spent $21 billion annually dealing with corrosion. One might guess that corrosion is costing us at least as much in our civil infrastructure, private businesses and homes.

Of course, corrosion isn’t a sexy subject. To make its awareness videos on corrosion more appealing, the DOD recruited LeVar Burton, known for his roles in Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, to host. Journalist Jonathan Waldman attempts to hook his readers by starting his book, Rust, with a story of an American icon, the Statue of Liberty.

When the Statue of Liberty was built, her makers unintentionally created something like a giant battery. While this current worked well to preserve the copper shell of the statue, atoms of the iron framework began to shuffle away, leading to serious corrosion. By the 1980s, the problem was serious enough to inspire a major renovation effort.

Waldman approaches the problem of corrosion through stories. In the Statue of Liberty we see that is something historically overlooked by engineers and actively ignored by administrators who can pass the problem on to a successor. Similarly, the military resisted Congress’ push to make it more responsive to the issues. Since then, the DOD has integrated corrosion concern into the way it does business, but civilian agencies are mostly dragging their heels.

Only a few of the stories come from government. Waldman also looks at the issue from the perspective of the aluminum can industry and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline—his recounting of a pigging of the pipeline surprisingly conveys some of the sense of drama that the people who undertake the effort must feel. He also dips into the early history of corrosion prevention in the work of chemist Sir Humphrey Davy for the British Navy and Harry Brearley, a discoverer and popularizer of stainless steel.

Waldman’s book is not a textbook on corrosion by any means; it is written for a popular audience. He does try to present how serious an issue it is—especially how costly it is. Fortunately, reasonable solutions to some of our most pressing rust problems are within reach if we have the will to do something about it.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Waldman, Jonathan. Rust: The Longest War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.