Hometown U: Gift to UAA allows for first corrosion lab in Alaska

Kathleen McCoy
Matt Cullin holds a corrosion cell used to perform critical pitting temperature tests in the new corrosion lab at UAA. Looking on is John Menge, president of BP Exploration Alaska.
A view of the crack along the 12-inch cast iron water main that failed on Lake Otis Parkway in early November, closing the street through two rush hours. The new corrosion lab will investigate what caused the failure.

So it's the day after the party and Matt Cullin is figuring out his next move.

The party was Dec. 4, the grand opening of a new lab at UAA, on the third floor of the Engineering Building. It's called the BP Asset Integrity and Corrosion Lab and means that for the first time, corrosion testing can be done in state.

It also means UAA students have the opportunity to advance their understanding of corrosion by working side by side with industry engineers. The university expects to add a corrosion lab class to its curriculum.

A $1 million gift from BP purchased the equipment, like a $250,000 scanning electron microscope (SEM). The money was also used to upgrade a former cadaver lab with better ventilation systems and fume hoods for handling the chemicals used in corrosive forensics. Seventy-two new feet of bench lab space is filled with sophisticated tools.

At 28 and with just three years at UAA as a mechanical engineering professor, Cullin is the lab's new director. The lab was his idea.

He arrived at UAA in 2009 after earning a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where he studied aluminum corrosion in aging aircraft. The quality of life in Alaska enticed him to leap over some tier-one research opportunities and choose UAA.

As he looked around Alaska at a large aviation industry, aging port facilities and an oil pipeline into its fourth decade of delivering crude, locating a corrosion lab in state made a lot of sense.

Cullin talked up his idea with Bill Hedges, part of BP's corrosion team. One thing Hedges saw when he looked around BP's offices was a lot of gray hair. The only plan BP has to replace its aging work force and its accumulated knowledge of northern challenges is to rotate people north for three-year stints. A more sustainable model would be to develop Alaska engineers with local corrosion expertise. He carried the ball within BP.

Now, about a year later, the lab is open for business and Cullin needs to figure out how to run it. State funding is tight, at the university and everywhere in state government. Cullin figures the lab will pay for itself within five years, maybe even sooner. But he has to get over the first hurdle of hiring a lab technician so UAA can start billing for work.

Cullin is a creative guy. He is already envisioning what he calls "the corrosion consortium." This might be the top beneficiaries of the lab -- BP, Alyeska Pipeline, local engineering firms, maybe Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, maybe the university, maybe the FAA and the state Department of Natural Resources. Cullin needs about $150,000 to staff the lab with a technician capable of running the sophisticated gear.

"Maybe five of them each could put in $30,000," he suggests, and that would get the lab open. The consortium would set the agenda for commercial work at the lab.

As a part of the lab's shakedown period, Cullin has agreed to a few pro bono projects. He and BP engineers have already collaborated on a glycol problem in a North Slope heating system.

And remember that water main break on Lake Otis Parkway in early November that closed the street through two rush hours? Mark Corsentino at AWWU has a piece of a 50-year-old cast iron pipe he'd like the lab to examine.

"We want to bring it in for some forensics in the lab," Corsentino said. "As part of asset management, it is very important to understand the root cause of the failure so we can know what risk our other pipe is at for similar failures."

Cullin knows that BP needs corrosion failure analysis work and if the lab at UAA contracts for the work, the results go to BP. But the state could also ask the lab for an independent analysis and the results would go to the state.

Cullin sees the university as neutral ground where industries and agencies affected by corrosion can share information and develop best practices.

"Corrosion is the great equalizer," Cullin says. "We've all been burned by corrosion."

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U