Cutting Edge: George Thompson

November 16, 2001

Corrosion is not necessarily a problem, it can also be used to our advantage.

My headmaster said I was the first boy to go to Nottingham University from Alsop High School, Liverpool. I studied pure sciences to A level, but after discussions with teachers, visits to universities and a reading of Metals in the Service of Man by Arthur Street and William Alexander, chemistry gave way to metallurgy.

Graduating with a first, I stayed at Nottingham to do research. The choice was between physical metallurgy and electrodeposition. The former won, thanks to the fascination of transmission electron microscopy and its application to the age hardening of aluminium-based aerospace alloys.

Industry did not appear buoyant in the early 1970s, and the attraction of postdoctoral research at Nottingham proved irresistible. The research, involving the effects of heat, mass and momentum transfer on electrochemical processes, provided a crucial introduction to corrosion science and engineering.

Then an ex-colleague rang to ask if I was interested in a job in industry in the area of lithographic-plate manufacture. The plates were made of aluminium, with the surface treated to provide the means for offset printing. A light-sensitive coating was applied to make the plate able to accept an image. Before this, the aluminium surface was roughened by controlled pitting and the growth of a tailored oxide on the pitted surface. This deliberate promotion of localised corrosion demonstrates how corrosion may be controlled to produce functional products.

As an industry employee, in 1973 I was seconded to the Corrosion and Protection Centre at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. This was led by the United Kingdom's first professor of corrosion science, Graham Wood. It was the ideal place to develop ways of observing and analysing the metal-liquid interface.

We sliced aluminium samples with an ultramicrotome, originally developed by biologists for slicing cells. This allowed us to take advantage of the increasing sophistication of analytical transmission electron microscopy. We added more tools until we had an arsenal of complementary approaches to characterise fully the sensitised printing plate and to understand its performance on the printing press.

The secondment proved highly successful. After six years I took the opportunity of an academic appointment. I never returned to industry, but I entered into collaborative research programmes with industry that have continued to the present day.

Within the Corrosion and Protection Centre, there were opportunities for teaching, and the research broadened to encompass applications of aluminium in aerospace, architecture, automotive, electronics, packaging and other industries. The complementary use of scientific approaches has persisted, with long-term collaborations and networking.

Collaboration with colleagues in Japan has been especially fruitful. However, the networking activities are truly global. Hundreds of scientists who have worked at our centre are employed in relevant industries worldwide, and we continue to collaborate with many of them.

George Thompson is head of Umist's Corrosion and Protection Centre.

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