Rust Never Sleeps (But Scientists Are Trying to Put it in a Coma)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 23, 2015

Boy, have I owned some rusty cars. I remember a Volkswagen with a floor so rotten the battery fell through and dragged on the ground by its positive and negative cables. As a kid the family Ford had been so invaded by the tin worm that I could see my Christmas presents through holes in the trunk.

My Dodge Darts were worse than this '65. Tom's '63 convertible was worse, too. (Nikita/Flickr)A ’64 Volvo 1800S I owned had to be sneaked through inspection at night—the doors were sagging, and whole sections of the frame were missing. My numerous Dodge Darts had fender edges as rough as a relief map of Chile. I remember seeing a ’63 Chevy convertible in an upstate New York graveyard that had literally broken in half, with the two sections separated by a whole foot.

Until very recently, cars—particularly Italian ones—had rudimentary rust protection. Rust never slept for Fiats and Alfas, which were crumbling within a year. The phrase “California car” really gained resonance in the 1960s and '70s. Europeans flocked there to buy the export model Triumphs and MGs, because the ones they had back home were total rust buckets. Left outside in a country where it’s usually pissing down rain, cars disintegrate into piles of metal powder.  

This blameless Studebaker wagon is fast succumbing to the tin worm. (Flickr/George Thomas)Those of us who live in the “Rust Belt,” which for our purposes is New England, the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, know all about bondo, Ziebart treatments and Rusty Jones “guaranteed rustproofing.” We’ve all owned cars that rusted away before they fell apart mechanically.

By 1995, dealing with corrosion was a $300 billion annual industry. But then something happened—carmakers got smarter. They started using more rust-resistant galvanized steel (coated with zinc) and improved paints. They also started designing out body pockets that trapped mud and moisture, and replacing steel rocker panels with plastic.

Remember Rusty Jones? If you live in California, probably not. (Wikipedia)“Rust is far less of a concern now,” said Mike Quincy, an analyst at Consumer Reports. “Cars are well protected from rust right from the factory.” My 2007 Honda Fit, which has sat outside through seven New England winters, is still corrosion-free.

All of this is prelude to this invention that Battelle Memorial Institute scientists just came up with—encapsulation. In plain English, it’s a “healing agent,” consisting of tiny beads (invisible to the naked eye), that can be added to paint. When and if corrosion starts to occur, the beads rupture and release material that fills in the micro-cracks where rust starts.
Battelle's tiny beads break open when they encounter corrosion. (Battelle Memorial Institute photo)Cindy Conner, Battelle’s senior market manager for consumer, industrial and medical products, tells me that cars might not rust as much as they used to, but “globally, billions of dollars are spent on corrosion problems every year—especially in infrastructure, such as oil and gas tanks located near salt water. It’s a big issue in aerospace, too.”

Conner said that Battelle has had inquiries from the auto industry, but the product won't be commercialized for a year or so. It could be a solution to a problem carmakers don't actually have. Opportunities may occur in painting the aluminum bodies that are starting to gain currency from Ford and others, and tightening paint regulations are likely to demand more corrosion-fighting properties. “And we’ve seen interest from companies doing auto repair,” she said.

Is that a '63 or '64 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine? Rust is making it hard to tell. (George Thomas/Flickr)Ah ha. That’s it --could classic cars be the target market here? Think about it. Restoring these very rust-prone bodies costs tens of thousands of dollars. Rechroming? Forget about it. A bumper is $500, and the last time I checked cars had two of them. But the real whammy is the paint job, which can easily cost $10,000 or more. The $100 20-foot paint job from Earl Scheib is mostly a thing of the past these days (though some outlets linger).

OK, you pay all that to “restore" the car, then leave it most of the time in a drafty garage where it immediately starts to rust again? Blisters in that expensive paint within a few years? Paint with that encapsulation thing would be just what the corrosion doctor ordered, in my humble opinion.
A once-mighty Chrysler Imperial now has a paint job like an abstract painting. (George Thomas/Flickr)So, rust. Did your family ever own a real rust bucket? An advanced cancer case? We’d love to see photos.
 

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