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Corrosion of Aluminum Alloy in Aircraft Fuel

Tank Compartments Due to Condensed Water

Z.D. Liang*

ABSTRACT Serious corrosion has been found on some alumi-

num alloy structures on a type of aircraft in China.
Corrosion of aircraft aluminum alloy structures has been Analysis has shown that the corrosion is of electro-
caused by condensed water in the fuel tank compartments. chemical nature. The surface of the corroded areas
Investigation and simulation tests have revealed that hy- appears exfoliated.
drogen chloride, which is released from the rubber fuel tank Further investigation reveals that the condensed
and dissolved in condensed water, is the corrosive factor. water that exists in the aircraft fuel tank compartments
Preventive measures are recommended. is the source of corrosive medium acting on the alumi-
KEY WORDS: aircraft corrosion, aluminum oxides, atmo- num alloy structures and that it contains more ionic
spheric causes, contact corrosion, corrosion resistance, chloride and ionic sulfate, which strengthen its corro-
environmentally assisted corrosion sive effect. The ionic chloride and ionic sulfate come
mainly from the rubber of the fuel tanks. In order to
INTRODUCTION prevent corrosion caused by condensed water, a se-
ries of comprehensive measures should be taken.
The structures of aircraft often suffer from corrosion This research provides scientific evidence for anti-
during operation or storage, especially in humid, corrosion research of the aircraft in service. It also
rainy, hot, and seriously polluted areas. supplies important information for the design and
The effect of corrosives on aircraft operations is manufacture of new aircraft with improved resistance
very important because it may shorten the aircrafts to corrosion.
service life, increase the maintenance and repair
costs, and even cause structural failures, posing a di- ANALYSIS OF CORROSIVE MEDIUM
rect threat to the aircrafts operational safety. In the
aviation field, great attention has been paid to such Fuel tanks on the aircraft are installed in the alu-
problems, and several efforts have been made toward minum tank compartments (Figure 1). Investigations
more anti-corrosion research. into the corroded aircraft structures reveal that the cor-
roded aluminum alloys are mostly in the fuel tank

compartments of the aircraft. This suggests that the

Submitted for publication April 1991; in revised form, January 1992.
* Material and Metallography Dept., Beijing Aeronautical Technology environment inside the fuel tank compartments is
Research Center, P.O. Box 9203, Beijing (100076), P.R. China. closely related to the corrosion. Inspection of over 10

514 1992, National Association of Corrosion Engineers CORROSIONJUNE 1992

fuel tank compartments of the aircraft shows that the

relative humidity inside is very high, as high as 100
percent in some cases, and that condensed water
drips are often found on the walls of the compart-
ments. Corrosion occurs easily in the holes and
grooves in the structures, where traces of water are
often found. These facts show that the corrosive
medium is the moist air and condensed water inside
the fuel tank compartments.

Formation of Condensed Water

Since the structure of the aircraft is not water-
proof, there are many ways for moisture or even water
to get into the fuel tank compartments. Moisture and
rainwater can pass through the seams of the structure,
components and access panels, penetrate into the fu-
selage and then into the fuel tank compartments. The
drain and ventilation conditions in the fuel tank com-
partments are poor. Therefore, moist air and rainwater
remain inside the fuel tank compartments. The change
in temperature, for example, between day and night,
between the inside and outside of the fuel tank during
refueling, and at high and low altitudes during flight
operation, causes the moist air to condense into water
drops that accumulate in the fuel tank compartments
due to poor drainage.
FIGURE 1. (a) Fuel tank located in the mid-section of fuse-
Analysis of Corrosion Products lage. (b) Fuel tank located in the wing section.
The fact that corrosion does not occur on all air-
craft aluminum alloy structures where water TABLE 1
accumulates led to a careful analysis of corrosion Ionic Chlorine Contents in Five Water Solutions
products. The samples of corrosion products to be Ionic
analyzed were taken from different structures on dif- Chlorine
ferent airplanes. No. Source of Water mg/L
Chemical analysis of the corroded surfaces
A Rain water from an airfield 7.0
shows the existence of sulfur in the corrosion prod-
ucts. The proportion of sulfur can be up to 30 wt% in B Water deposit on the aircraft other than 10.0
some areas. Chlorine of up to 7 wt% is also found in the fuel tank compartments
the corrosion products.
C Condensed water inside the fuel tank 275.0
Microstructure analysis of the corrosion products compartments of the same aircraft
indicates that Al2O3 takes up 70 ~ 80% of the total
weight. AlCl, in addition to some Al(OH) and Al2(SO4)3, D Distilled water in which the material of new 600.0
takes up 10%. fuel tank was submerged
Therefore, ionic chlorine in the corrosive medium E Distilled water in which the material of aging 950.0
contributes the most to the corrosion of the aluminum fuel tank was submerged
alloy of the fuel tank compartments.

Analysis of Condensed Water ionic chlorine corrosive medium strengthens its

Since the corrosive medium contains the ionic corrosiveness.
chlorine and ionic sulfate, the author collected con-
densed water from the aircraft fuel tank compartments
and measured the ionic chlorine content, which was
higher than those in other water sources (Table 1). It Contents of Ionic Chlorine in Different Water
is concluded from the above that the condensed water Solutions
inside fuel tank compartments is the corrosive medium The corrosive medium, condensed water, con-
acting on the aluminum alloy structures. High-content tains extra amounts of ionic chlorine and some ionic

CORROSIONVol. 48, No. 6 515


Chlorine is also contained in the rubber material

of the fuel tank, such as the chlorine-butadiene rubber,
which gradually releases HCl during its aging process.
HCl is dissolved into the condensed water, increasing
the amount of ionic chlorine in it and strengthening its
corrosive effect. The electrochemical corrosion pro-
cess of the aluminum materials can be expressed as
The anode: Al Al +3 + 3e (1)
FIGURE 2. The appearance of three test pieces after corro-
sion simulating tests.
The cathode: O 2 + 2H 2 O + 4e 4 HO (2)

In the water: Al +3 + 3 OH Al(OH) 3 (3)

The aluminum alloy under the corrosive action of

the condensed water will become Al(OH)3, a white de-
posit. In some cases, Al(OH)3 will change into Al2O3.
As a highly harmful agent for corrosion of alumi-
num alloys, ionic chlorine in the water solution plays
the role of catalyst by increasing the corrosiveness of
the water. This view is detailed in other papers.
Therefore, ionic chlorine in the condensed water
comes from HCl, which is released during the aging
process of the rubber fuel tank.


To confirm the above conclusions, the author con-

ducted the following simulation tests.
FIGURE 3. The magnified appearance of test piece B in
Test 1: Test piece + material of the fuel tank,
Figure 2 (200X).
in dry air;
Test 2: Test piece + distilled water; and
sulfate. It is important to identify the source of these Test 3: Test piece + fuel tank material + distilled
matters. water.
It is obvious that HCl, NaCl, SO2, etc., exist in the The test pieces were taken from the aluminum
atmosphere, especially in severely polluted areas. alloy structures of the aircraft under study. Each test
These chemical products, when mixed with rain, may was conducted in a constant temperature box, at the
penetrate into the fuel tank compartments. same temperature and in the same time period. Each
The author collected five different water samples test was repeated three times, and the same results
and measured their ionic chlorine contents. The re- were obtained.
sults are given in Table 1.
Test Results
Fuel Tank Aging Test 1: The surface of the test piece is as smooth
The fuel tanks of the aircraft are a multilayer and bright as before, without any corrosion (Figure
polysulfide rubber structure. Chlorine-butadiene, a 2[a] and Figure 3[a]). This illustrates that although the
composition of rubber, contains a large amount of sul- fuel tank material emits HCl in its aging process, it
fur and chlorine. usually does not corrode the aluminum alloy in the dry
The sulfur is insufficiently sulfurized during rubber air.
production and can automatically deposit during stor- Test 2: A thin, gray film appears on the test piece,
age or in service. This sulfur emission phenomenon but there is no apparent exfoliation (Figure 2[b] and
is also common for the rubber fuel tank. The sulfur is Figure 3[b]). This illustrates that pure water, such as
dissolved into the condensed water and brought to the the distilled water, has little corrosive effect on alumi-
structures in the compartments with the water. How- num alloys.
ever, most of the sulfur exists in the noncrystal status, Test 3: Apparent exfoliation appears on the surface
thus having little corrosive effect on the aluminum of the test piece. At 45 2C, the test piece
alloy. submerged in the solution for 20 days is corroded and



FIGURE 4. The magnified appearance of test piece in Figure

2 magnified (5X). FIGURE 5. Exfoliation of test piece C in Figure 2 (400X).

exfoliation can be seen (Figure 2[c], Figure 3[c], and

Figure 4). Detailed analysis of the test piece reveals
that its corrosion features such as the overall appear-
ance, microcharacteristics, and composition of the
corrosion products are similar to those found in the air-
craft fuel tank. In other words, this test repeated the
corrosion process of the aluminum alloy in the fuel
tank compartments. Figure 5 shows the exfoliation on
the aircraft structures due to corrosion.


The following measures are recommended for ef-

fective prevention of corrosion of aircraft structures
caused by condensed water.
FIGURE 6. Exfoliation of aluminum alloy structures on the
Take the basic effective waterproof measures to aircraft (300X).
prevent moist air and water from entering. At the
same time, improve the drainage system of the
aircraft fuel tank compartments and eliminate the
During the aircraft design and manufacturing, avoid
formation and deposit of condensed water.
using synthetic materials containing chloride for parts
where water is easily deposited. If synthetic materials
Use seal assembling and apply sealing to all the
that contain chloride are used, apply a special
fittings and connections after installation, including all
coating to prevent aging.
bolts, nuts, rivets, and even static electric wiring.
Remove all the corrosion products found in the
structures. Then, apply the following protection and 1. L.J. Gui, Z.G. Yan. Handbook of Aeronautical Products Corrosion and
sealing methods: chemical oxidization, anti-corrosion Control, 1984.
painting, and seal coating. 2. Z.R. Zhang, Corrosion of Metals, 1989.

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