What Causes Oxidation in Metals and How to Avoid It

What causes metals to rust? What is oxidized metal? How long does oxidation take? What is the oxidation process, and how does it differ from corrosion and rust? Oxidation vs corrosion, oxidation vs rust — these are common questions that arise when discussing metal deterioration. But what exactly is oxidized metal, and what causes oxidation?

The Chemical Reaction

For all metals, with the exception of the common precious metals (i.e. gold, platinum, iridium), oxidation occurs when exposed to the elements of the environment. The major players for corrosion and oxidation are oxygen and atmospheric moisture. It is a chemical reaction, called oxidation, of the metal surface with the oxygen that causes some of the metal to corrode (or in other terms oxidize) and form the oxidation (better known as metal oxide) on the surface. In some of the more rough metals such as steel, the corrosion products formed are easy to see because they sit on the surface and are loose. On metal surfaces that have rusted for quite some time, you might be able to just blow a puff of air at the surface and watch the metal oxide blow away like a powder.

The Fundamental Science Behind Oxidation

Gaining electrons describes the process by which metal atoms undergo reduction, while losing electrons characterizes the oxidation of these atoms. This is a fundamental aspect in the formation of rust as metals react with oxygen in the environment. Rust formation involves a complex interplay of chemical species and electron transfer processes. When iron metal comes into contact with oxygen gas in the presence of moisture, it undergoes oxidation. This is a process where iron atoms lose electrons, transitioning from a metallic state (Fe?) to various oxidation states (such as Fe²? and Fe³?).

This loss of electrons by iron atoms is accompanied by the reduction of oxygen gas, which gains electrons to form oxide ions (O²?). The exchange of electrons between iron and oxygen is central to the formation of rust. As rust develops, it consists of various oxide layers, primarily iron(III) oxide (Fe?O?) and iron(III) hydroxide (Fe(OH)?), among other chemical species. These layers provide a protective barrier, but they can also trap moisture and promote further corrosion.

rusted lock on chest

What’s the Common Denominator?

There are many types of oxidation, and they occur through various processes. The most common surfaces for what we’re referring to are metal surfaces, however, just about anything can oxidize given heat, water, and oxygen. The one common denominator in forms of oxidation reactions is, well, oxygen. Simply put, oxidation and corrosion would not occur if you didn’t have the element of oxygen. This chemical reaction with oxygen causes metals to corrode, forming oxide layers on the surface. Carbon dioxide can enhance oxidation by reacting with water to form carbonic acid, which can further accelerate the corrosion of metals such as iron, leading to the formation of oxide layers like rust.

Oxidation in Action

An iron nail left exposed to the elements undergoes the process of oxidation. As moisture from the atmosphere comes into contact with the iron surface, oxygen reacts with the iron atoms, initiating oxidation. Over time, this reaction forms iron oxide, commonly known as rust, on the surface of the nail. The presence of moisture and oxygen facilitates the oxidation process, gradually causing the iron nail to corrode and develop a reddish-brown patina. The formation of iron oxide weakens the structural integrity of the nail, ultimately leading to its deterioration if left untreated.

How Do You Prevent Oxidation?

It’s not a secret as many of the products that you use at home or work already do this. Scientists have known about prevention for years. The way to prevent oxidation, caused by oxygen, is to provide a layer of shielding between the material and the air. In addition, if there is already oxidation occurring, you’ll want to make sure that as much of that is removed as possible. Honestly, rust removal and prevention is exactly what Sheen Genie does. This could mean using our sealer/repellant or the wax detail spray. They both offer and produce a polyurethane coating on the surface of metal objects or a quick spray of an anti-oxidant. Destructive oxidation cannot occur if the oxygen cannot penetrate a surface to reach the bare surface to corrode.

How Long Does Oxidation Take?

The rusting process involves the chemical reaction between iron, oxygen, and water, resulting in the formation of iron oxide, commonly known as rust, on the surface of metal objects. The timeframe for oxidation varies depending on several factors, including the type of metal, environmental conditions, and exposure to corrosive elements. While some metals may show signs of oxidation within hours or days, others may take weeks or even months to develop noticeable oxidation.

Iron Metal Rust Formation

Iron metal undergoes a transformative process when exposed to oxygen and moisture. When an iron object is subjected to the elements it reacts through oxidation. This chemistry oxidation initiates the formation of iron oxide on the surface of the iron. As iron rusts, it undergoes a chemical change that alters its appearance and structure. Initially, the iron may exhibit a reddish-brown discoloration as the rust begins to form. Over time the rust can spread, causing the iron object to deteriorate and weaken. The process of iron rusting highlights the susceptibility of iron to oxidation and emphasizes the importance of protective measures to prevent corrosion and maintain the integrity of iron-based materials.

Application Options for Rust Prevention

Have you ever noticed the reddish-brown discoloration on an iron nail left out in the rain? That’s oxidation in action, a natural process that occurs when metal interacts with oxygen. The most common corrosion is the red color from iron oxide (better known as rust) seen on unprotected steel products. The red rust formed is generally powdery and loose and easily falls away exposing more and more of the base metal. However, metals such as stainless steel (steel with added nickel and chromium) oxidize as well. Stainless steel is alloyed (strengthened by properties when mixed with other metals. Typically this is done to strengthen the metal or give it specific properties or resistance to others) and therefore ends up being more resistant to metal oxidation.

abandoned truck with signs of oxidation and chemical reactions

How to Avoid Rust From Forming on Your Metal Surfaces

One of the most effective ways to prevent rust from forming on your metal surfaces is to establish a routine for cleaning and drying them regularly. Rust forms within moisture, so wiping down metal surfaces with a dry cloth after each use helps to remove any lingering moisture. For outdoor metal items exposed to rain or humidity, consider using a mild detergent and water solution to clean them periodically, followed by thorough drying with a clean cloth or towel.

Clear Protection Coating to Prevent Further Oxidation

Clear protection coatings are typically transparent. This allows the natural appearance of the metal to shine through while providing an invisible shield against corrosion. Clean the metal surface thoroughly to remove any existing rust, dirt, or contaminants that may hinder adhesion. Once cleaned, the coating can be applied using brushes, sprayers, or other appropriate methods depending on the product’s instructions. Regular maintenance of the coated surface is necessary to ensure long-term protection against rust. Reapplication may be required over time due to wear and exposure to environmental elements. Investing in a clear protective coating can significantly extend the lifespan of metal surfaces and maintain their aesthetic appeal for years to come. Shop Sheen Genie’s products now!

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