Most metal corrosion occurs via electrochemical reactions at the interface between the metal and an electrolyte solution. A thin film of moisture on a metal surface forms the electrolyte for atmospheric corrosion. Wet concrete is the electrolyte for reinforcing rod corrosion in bridges. Although most corrosion takes place in water, corrosion in non-aqueous systems is not unknown.
Corrosion normally occurs at a rate determined by an equilibrium between opposing electrochemical reactions. The first is the anodic reaction, in which a metal is oxidized, releasing electrons into the metal. The other is the cathodic reaction, in which a solution species (often O2 or H+) is reduced, removing electrons from the metal. When these two reactions are in equilibrium, the flow of electrons from each reaction is balanced, and no net electron flow (electrical current) occurs. The two reactions can take place on one metal or on two dissimilar metals (or metal sites) that are electrically connected.
Figure 1-1 diagrams this process. The vertical axis is potential and the horizontal axis is the logarithm of absolute current. The theoretical current for the anodic and cathodic reactions are shown as straight lines. The curved line is the total current — the sum of the anodic and cathodic currents. This is the current that you measure when you sweep the potential of the metal with your potentiostat. The sharp point in the curve is actually the point where the current changes signs as the reaction changes from anodic to cathodic, or vice versa. The sharp point is due to the use of a logarithmic axis. The use of a log axis is necessary because of the wide range of current values that must be displayed during a corrosion experiment. Because of the phenomenon of passivity, it is not uncommon for the current to change by six orders of magnitude during a corrosion experiment.