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Simply Chemistry and the Blame Game

July 6, 2011

USS Independence

Some time ago I discussed the two new class ships the US Navy had built for the new Littoral Ship class. The USS Independence is a tri-hull design built by a consortium led by General Dynamics. General Dynamics is no stranger to government contracts or shipbuilding, of course.

The actual hull construction was done by a company called Austal, from West Australia, which built a facility in Mobile, Alabama, specifically for the construction US Navy hulls.

Now we find there is a problem, and Austal is blaming the Navy for it.The problem is electrolysis, which is causing the steel and aluminum hull to actually disintegrate upon contact with sea water. Through a process called galvanic corrosion, aluminum ions are actually removing themselves from the hull. Steel segments of the hull become the cathode, aluminum the anode. The process can be very rapid.

Austal seems to be saying the Navy skimped on money building the ship, so no galvanic protection system was installed. On the other hand, Austal’s own web site promotes their expertise in building aluminum ships and yachts, so I can’t imagine they thought this wouldn’t happen on the Independence.

Everybody should have caught this…the Navy review folks, General Dynamics, Austal…especially the crew. Now the ship is being repaired in drydock because the problem is most apparent around the engines!

Austal is supposed to be the experts, and they blame the Navy for cutting corners. The Navy, of course, will blame the contractor. And the taxpayers will pay more to repair the ship and add the protection system after the fact than if it was done right the first time. This is not experimental, friends, this is a known issue. It’s like forgetting to put in fuel tanks. Any plumber knows not to mix dissimilar pipe metals for the same reason. Why didn’t anyone say anything?

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