The basic concept of cathodic protection is that the electrical potential of the subject metal is reduced below its corrosion potential, and that it will then be incapable of going into solution, or corroding.

This mechanism has been defined by many scientists and has become established beyond dispute. Indeed the principles of corrosion reactions are used in the design and construction of expendable and re-chargeable batteries and accumulators which play such a major part in modern life.

A battery that is 'dead' has no energy left and does not corrode any further. Likewise a car battery on charge does not corrode, in fact in this case the reaction is reversible, and energy is 'pumped back in'.

However, a battery has a very carefully composed electrolyte which has qualities to ensure a predictable reaction with the other components of the battery. We know that the corrosion within a battery can be controlled very accurately, by external electrical input, as this technique is in common use with rechargeable batteries which are nowadays controlled by computers which balance the reaction equilibrium to suit their own power demands.

Unfortunately a cathodic protection system is not composed of simple elements in the way that batteries are, because the electrolyte is the ground itself. This electrolyte is uncontrollable and has an almost infinite variety of qualities. The chemical composition and electrical conductivity can span a vast range, as can the temperatures and pressures to which the reaction is subjected.

Cathodic protection of such subjects as ships hulls and storage tank bases is relatively simple as the electrolyte is likely to be almost homogeneous, but as the size of the structure increases, it extends through different electrolytes and the reaction at each interface varies.

Offshore oil rigs, for example have different temperatures and pressures at the sea bed to those at the surface, and a study of this situation has shown that it has a substantial influence on corrosion.

Pipelines can be regarded as many interface reactions connected together in parallel. The metal element can be well defined, as this is specified to a high degree by the designers, as is the coating material.

However it is accepted that no coating can be perfect, and the faults, or 'Holidays' introduce the first indefinable variable to the system.

During the construction of a pipeline all possible measures are taken to detect and repair coating faults, so it follows that those remaining are undefined. It is possible to calculate the theoretical resistance of a perfectly coated pipeline, given the specification of the coating and dimensions of the pipeline, but it is impossible to calculate the actual resistance of the total pipeline.

The electrical current measurements, taken during routine cathodic protection monitoring, show that there is little resistance in the total coating (with faults) of a pipeline and this can be explained by the difficulty in quality control, during the construction period.

Undetected coating faults are the path of cathodic protection current and a perfect coating would prevent any output from the CP system. We therefore, know that there are many unspecified 'metal to electrolyte' interfaces present on an average pipeline.

The electrical resistance of the pipeline metal itself can be calculated, and is found to be very low. In fact the effect that the pipeline resistance has on the complex current paths and variation in potentials, is so small that it can almost be ignored.

The complication is due to each interface being capable of a different reaction, electro- motive-force (EMF) which cannot be measured as it is in parallel with all other EMF’s on the same section of pipeline. The magnitude of the current from each of these reactions is dependent on the earth resistance immediately adjacent to the interface, and the direction of all the resulting currents is the result of the combined effects of all the resistances and electrical pressures caused by all the EMF's.

Although it is simple to understand each corrosion cell and the mechanism of corrosion itself, the reality of applying the science, to the field, becomes immensely complex. This becomes more obvious when the circuit has been subject to computer modelling as discussed later.
To be effective, cathodic protection must reduce the metal at each single interface, to below it's corrosion potential. This is not too difficult to achieve, as each interface is part of the same metal structure, which has a very low electrical resistance. The difficulty is knowing when all the interfaces have been reduced to below their corrosion potential in relation to the electrolyte in their reaction vicinity. ( Don't forget, if we knew where each interface was we would repair them all!!!!)


There are several other problems, however, as too much current passing onto a steel surface can cause embrittlement, which under certain circumstances can be as detrimental as corrosion itself. This is manifest in such applications as the protection of the external surfaces of drill pipe casings, where a considerable amount of cathodic protection current is used.


Another fear of 'over-protection' is that of cathodic disbondment of the coating. This happens when the coating manufacturers specifications are exceeded. Cathodic protection current passing onto the metal causes the release of hydrogen which disbonds the coating. In reality this is rarely a problem, and a careful study reveals why.

The current will only pass onto the metal at a coating fault, and the density of the current will depend on the size of the coating fault and the current locally available. As the current blows the coating from the metal, the volts drop at the interface will decrease, and equilibrium will be reached with a very small increase in additional disbondment.

If there is no coating fault, then no cathodic disbondment will occur as recognised in the British Standard Code of Practice for testing the coating manufacturers specification. This requires a specific size of coating fault on a steel coupon, to be subjected to an increasing voltage over a specified period. The test cannot be carried out on a coupon with perfect coating as the disbondment is observed under the coating at the edge of the fault.

It is logical to deduce that if cathodic disbondment is caused by current and that if all current is prevented by a perfect coating, then no disbondment will take place. This is not common sense, however, as many excavations have been dug in areas where high 'pipe- to-soil potentials' have caused concern about cathodic disbondment. In the event, it has proved the logic (above) and no disbondment has been found.

In one particular example voltages of over 5 volts had been recorded when the electrode was place on the surface above the buried pipeline which was subsequently excavated, at several spots, for examination. A coating fault was found at one location but no disbondment. The current passing onto the metal at this coating fault, caused a drop in the voltage of the electrode as it got nearer to the pipe. Whereas at the surface the reading had been over 5 volts, this reduced to 0.950 volts when the electrode could be placed close to the actual interface between the metal and the earth.

This simple drawing shows that the earth at the surface has a higher potential than the earth close to the pipeline at the coating fault, due to the current passing from 'mass earth' into the pipe metal.

At such site it is easy to plot the 'potential gradient' using a static electrode as a reference and a moving electrode to trace the potential isobars. As soon as the coating fault is fully exposed to the air, the gradient disappears completely, as the current stops. The meter then reads 5 volts, even with the electrode placed in the ground a few mm from the metal.

by : Roger Alexander