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The Suburbanite
  • Akron's corrosion engineers knocking the rust off Rust Belt

  • Akron is the first university in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in corrosion engineering and the program is gaining national attention.

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  • In the middle of March while the spring was trying to fight its way back into season and the winter’s salt was grinding its teeth into Northeast Ohio surfaces, a group of University of Akron students were in Orlando. They were taking part, as they have the last three years, in the National Association of Corrosion Engineers annual conference.
    In many ways, Akron students are the rising stars of the conference because they are trailblazers among a group of specialized engineers. It is ironic, in a way, because they are fresh faces with no rust, no wear and ready to try to solve corrosion problems across the country.
    “We all know the upper Midwest has been known as the Rust Belt for some time,” University of Akron President Dr. Luis Proenza said. “Now we’re rust busters instead.”
    Akron is the first university in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in corrosion engineering and the program is gaining national attention.
    In Northeast Ohio, corrosion is as much a problem as it is anywhere else. Particularly with the oil and gas exploration, the issue will not go away any time soon. Equipment used for hydraulic fracturing is used in extreme conditions, given the temperature beneath the surface of the earth in which drilling takes place, as well as the brine that comes in contact with the machinery. As energy companies build a pipeline throughout the region, corrosion engineering will play a large factor in developing materials that will give the pipeline as much longevity as possible.
    “At this NACE conference there are 4,500 attendees and when our students hit the floor there, they get a lot of attention,” said Professor Joe Payer, who left Case Western University after 25 years and joined Akron’s faculty in the corrosion and reliability engineering department. “You hear people say they wish that 20 years ago they had the training that’s available now.
    “Prior to this, people went out and worked in corrosion, but they came from material science programs and a good chunk of them were and are chemical engineers. … In the past, companies would hire them and give them on-the-job training. This gives them a jump start,” Payer said.
    CO-OP PROGRAM
    Akron’s program has been so well received from the corporate world, in addition to millions of dollars in donations — the largest from the Department of Defense — corrosion engineering students are sought by large companies well before graduation.
    The co-op program in the engineering school faced a problem two years ago. The first group of freshmen corrosion engineering students completed the program’s first year. Several companies wanted to hire freshmen students as co-op partnerships.
    “We had to scramble to prepare students to take advantage of this opportunity as freshmen,” said Sue Louscher, the university’s executive director, national center for education and research on corrosion and materials performance.
    Page 2 of 4 - Some of those students are making between $20-$25 an hour for 16 to 20-week co-op programs at companies such as BP in Houston. In addition to a full work week, they are given a housing stipend as well. Akron students aren’t glad-handing in those co-ops, either.
    “I was in a co-op a long time ago … and the first two co-ops I had, it was ‘hey, go follow Fred,’ and it was essentially a shadowing experience for three months,” Payer said. “You learned where Fred got his coffee and who he talked to. That’s long gone. Now it’s, ‘here’s your desk, here’s the problem and when can we expect your report.’
    “When they come back from co-op, I find myself asking, ‘They allowed you to do what?’ The companies need help and they get real assignments,” noted Payer.
    So much so that much of the work is proprietary.
    Junior David Waligorski, a Northwest High School graduate, is nearing the end of a co-op with BP in Houston. He started at Akron as a chemical engineering major, but changed after a class with a professor who explained the corrosion major.
    “The main thing that drew me in was the uniqueness of the program and the research opportunities,” Waligorski said. “That professor was doing a lot of research with oil and gas companies. Through that, I’ve been able to experience how people test materials and characterize them to be used in certain environments.”
    DEMANDING MAJOR
    The university has had a proud history in polymer engineering and, Proenza said, because polymers are a part of corrosion coatings the two complement one another well.
    A major in corrosion engineering isn’t for the half-hearted student. Engineering is typically a difficult major. Most engineering students would classify civil engineering as a slightly easier major in the field, with chemical and corrosion engineering being the most demanding.
    It takes a dedicated student to complete the five-year bachelor’s degree.
    Waligorski had a 3.9 GPA at Northwest High School. He took classes at Stark State while in high school. His father is an engineer and it was a field he planned on going in to, but not specifically corrosion.
    “There are all sorts of places that need corrosion engineers,” Waligorski said. “It is not a narrow field. In Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania it is an (occupation) that will be developing more and more.”
    Stephen Callow, like Waligorski, is a junior in the program. He has been placed in a co-op with BP in Texas as well. The major is difficult, he admitted.
    “I think if you ask any student in engineering, at one point or another they wanted to quit and switch,” Callow said. “As a senior in high school I wanted to go into architecture. I see friends studying pre-med having an easier time. The important thing is to stick with it.”
    Page 3 of 4 - There aren’t many majors that allow for paid co-op opportunities and other benefits.
    BUILDING THE MAJOR
    Louscher helped to build the major at Akron. At the time, she was the university’s executive director for its Medina county branch when she was approached by Mike Baach, a co-founder of Corrpro, a company that specializes in asset preservation. Baach was working as the economic development director for Medina and approached Louscher with a partnership idea.
    “The university is serious about developing industry responsive programs,” Louscher said.
    Louscher, because of many years working in Washington D.C., knew there was a need for corrosion study for the Department of Defense. The defense department provided more than $2 million to get Akron’s program started. It has taken more than $20 million to develop the new major.
    “This was a niche made for UA,” Louscher said. “This university has a philosophy of developing industry-responsive programs. We grew up in the rubber industry. We developed rubber programs here. It’s in our history to do this.”
    The Defense Department estimates corrosion costs at about $22 billion a year, and Louscher said the total cost of corrosion to the U.S. economy is about $400 billion a year.
    While Akron’s program was in its infancy, so was the oil and gas exploration in Ohio.
    “The genesis and overarching needs for the nation as a whole remain independent of the oil and gas industry,” Proenza said. “It was the Department of Defense and industry from NACE that saw the need for a baccalaureate and research program. ... Now, we are aware of the need in oil and gas as it relates to pipeline and storage facilities that are subject to corrosion.
    “With the development of shale opportunities that will be front and center here, our ability is to add value by adding talented individuals to address the problem before it develops,” said Proenza.
    Akron did not develop the corrosion major because of the oil and gas boom in Ohio, but coincidentally, the two will work well together.
    “I wouldn’t say from day one we saw a reason to develop this because of oil and gas,” Louscher said. “We were starting to germinate at the same time. If you look at Ohio — from Youngstown to Akron to Columbus and Cincinnati — we have a unique set of companies involved in corrosion protection.”
    For the fall 2012 semester, Akron had 47 students enrolled as corrosion engineering majors, with another 22 planning to join. The junior class, which includes Callow and Waligorski, will be the first in the country to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in corrosion engineering. Those students are working co-ops at places such as BP, Ashland Inc., Babcock and Wilcox, Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, Carboline and Marathon Pipe Line.
    Page 4 of 4 - “I think it will develop as one of the signature programs of the University of Akron,” Proenza said. “It has exceeded my expectations, but it’s still in the process of developing. We need time to attract more faculty and to broaden the support to include more companies and industries. We’re strongly supported by the Department of Defense, and reasonably by industry. It would be nice to have the Department of Transportation and other agencies get into the act.”
    Reach Todd at 330-580-8340 or todd.porter@cantonrep.com
    On Twitter: @tporterREP