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Q&AZ: Why Do Tools Rust In Dry Arizona?

Q&AZ is supported in part by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company

Rust is a phenomenon typically associated with damp settings.

One listener wanted to know why tools left in a shed in Arizona rust despite the state's dry conditions.

Arizona is a desert climate with low annual rainfall and relative humidity, but the state is far from bone-dry.

Karl Sieradzki, professor of materials science and engineering at Arizona State University, said that, even here, iron and its alloys, like steel, will oxidize. It's just a matter of time.

"It just takes longer for this to happen than it might, for example, on the East Coast where cars rust all the time because of the salt used and the water and the moisture that accelerates the rate of the rusting," he said.

So, unless a tool is made of stainless steel — which has a thin, chromium-rich barrier a few tens of atoms thick — its rusty fate is inevitable.

All it takes is oxygen, iron, time and a hint of moisture. 

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.