Liquid Interfacial Electron Microscopy Identifies Nanogalvanic Corrosion in Pearlitic Steel

Research output: NRELPresentation


The nanoscale mechanisms of localized corrosion in low carbon steels have remained elusive due to the complexity of studying the degradative material behavior at nanoscale solid-liquid interfaces. We identified various steps in the nanogalvanic corrosion processes using in-situ liquid-cell scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) using a microfluidic holder by Hummingbird Scientific. Initial work, performed at low magnification, identified the initiation point on a 1018 low-carbon steel surface. This initiation point was determined to be a triple junction of two ferrite grains bridging a cementite grain in contact with a baseline electrolyte of 6 uM CO2 dissolved in a buffered (2.78 uM Na2SO4) aqueous solution, pH 6.1. The pre-etched low-carbon steel surface was prepared using focused ion beam lift-out procedures to extract a cross-section of the low-carbon steel surface, which then was thinned to about 150 nm and transferred to a SiN membrane microfluidic window. The transfer was made using a lift-out needle to attach the low-carbon steel lamella to the corner of the SiN window, and then Pt/C deposition held the lamella in contact with the window while it was released from the lift out needle. To identify the triple point on the low carbon steel lamella, prior to attachment on the SiN window, the sample was characterized for compositional variations with energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy mapping, grain orientation and phase mapping with precession electron diffraction, and thickness mapping with energy filtered transmission electron microscopy. This pre-characterization prior to the in-situ experiment provided a map of the multiphase and multigrain structure, where the in-situ liquid cell imaging provided a clear understanding of the initiation point on the sample. These data were cross-correlated to paint a holistic picture of the triple junction site, enabling low electron-fluence in-situ snapshot imaging to avoid dominating the native corrosion reactions with effects from the incident electron beam. This initial result identified that localized, nanogalvanic corrosion at the phase interface was the dominant corrosion process in the low-carbon steel, so we next targeted the observation of an array of these nanogalvanic features phase boundaries in a pearlite grain. Near-surface ferrite/cementite phase interfaces that typify pearlitic low-carbon steel were extracted, pre-characterized, and imaged for the in-situ corrosion processes. The sample was a cross-section from a pearlite grain, with alternating ferrite and cementite grains that extended microns down from the pre-etched low-carbon steel pipe surface. After contact with a buffered aqueous solution, the phase boundaries between the ferrite and cementite began to dissolve, with observable material loss and thickness changes in the dark-field and bright-field STEM images. Within minutes, the corrosion front proceeded deeper into the material, claiming a thin layer of ferrite around all exposed phase boundaries before progressing laterally into the ferrite matrix, converting the ferrite to corrosion product normal to each buried cementite grain. Formation of the corrosion product causes a volumetric expansion, creating a lateral wedging force that mechanically ejects the cementite grains from their grooves and leaves behind percolation channels into the steel substructure. Rapid and deleterious, this nanogalvanic corrosion pathway represents an important target for understanding and preventing run-away degradation in this common building material. Observation of this corrosion mechanism was enabled by the combination of pre-characterization using standard structural, grain, and compositional analysis in the TEM, which provides maps for understanding the reaction propagation captured in low-dose, in-situ, liquid-cell STEM.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages33
StatePublished - 2023

Publication series

NamePresented at the 20th International Microscopy Congress, 10-15 September 2023, Busan, South Korea

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-5K00-86285


  • corrosion
  • electron
  • in-situ STEM
  • liquid phase
  • microscopy


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