They are made from a metal alloy with a more "active" voltage (more negative reduction potential / more positive electrochemical potential) than the metal of the structure. The difference in potential between the two metals means that the galvanic anode corrodes, so that the anode material is consumed in preference to the structure.
The loss (or sacrifice) of the anode material gives rise to the alternative name of sacrificial anode.
In brief, corrosion is a chemical reaction occurring by an electrochemical mechanism (a redox reaction). During corrosion there are two reactions, oxidation (equation 1), where electrons leave the metal (and results in the actual loss of metal) and reduction, where the electrons are used to convert water or oxygen to hydroxides (equations 2 and 3).
As corrosion takes place, oxidation and reduction reactions occur and electrochemical cells are formed on the surface of the metal so that some areas will become anodic (oxidation) and some cathodic (reduction). Electrons flow from the anodic areas into the electrolyte as the metal corrodes. Conversely, as electrons flow from the electrolyte to the cathodic areas the rate of corrosion is reduced. (The flow of electrons is in the opposite direction of the flow of electric current).
As the metal continues to corrode, the local potentials on the surface of the metal will change and the anodic and cathodic areas will change and move. As a result, in ferrous metals, a general covering of rust is formed over the whole surface, which will eventually consume all the metal. This is rather a simplified view of the corrosion process, because it can occur in several different forms.
CP works by introducing another metal (the galvanic anode) with a much more anodic surface, so that all the current will flow from the introduced anode and the metal to be protected becomes cathodic in comparison to the anode. This effectively stops the oxidation reactions on the metal surface by transferring them to the galvanic anode, which will be sacrificed in favour of the structure under protection.
For this to work there must be an electron pathway between the anode and the metal to be protected (e.g., a wire or direct contact) and an ion pathway between both the oxidizing agent (e.g., water or moist soil) and the anode, and the oxidizing agent and the metal to be protected, thus forming a closed circuit; therefore simply bolting a piece of active metal such as zinc to a less active metal, such as mild steel, in air (a poor conductor and therefore no closed circuit) will not furnish any protection.
Magnesium has the most negative electropotential of the three (see galvanic series) and is more suitable for areas where the electrolyte (soil or water) resistivity is higher. This is usually on-shore pipelines and other buried structures, although it is also used on boats in fresh water and in water heaters. In some cases, the negative potential of magnesium can be a disadvantage: if the potential of the protected metal becomes too negative, hydrogen ions may be evolved on the cathode surface leading to hydrogen embrittlement or to disbonding of the coating. Where this is a possibility, zinc anodes may be used.
Zinc and aluminium are generally used in salt water, where the resistivity is generally lower. Typical uses are for the hulls of ships and boats, offshore pipelines and production platforms, in salt-water-cooled marine engines, on small boat propellers and rudders, and for the internal surface of storage tanks.
Zinc is considered a reliable material, but is not suitable for use at higher temperatures, as it tends to passivate (the oxide formed shields from further oxidation); if this happens, current may cease to flow and the anode stops working. Zinc has a relatively low driving voltage, which means in higher-resistivity soils or water it may not be able to provide sufficient current. However, in some circumstances — where there is a risk of hydrogen embrittlement, for example — this lower voltage is advantageous, as overprotection is avoided.
Aluminium anodes have several advantages, such as a lighter weight, and much higher capacity than zinc. However, their electrochemical behavior is not considered as reliable as zinc, and greater care must be taken in how they are used. Aluminium anodes will passivate where chloride concentration is below 1,446 parts per million.
One disadvantage of aluminium is that if it strikes a rusty surface, a large thermite spark may be generated, so its use is restricted in tanks where there may be explosive atmospheres and there is a risk of the anode falling.
Since the operation of a galvanic anode relies on the difference in electropotential between the anode and the cathode, practically any metal can be used to protect some other, providing there is a sufficient difference in potential. For example, iron anodes can be used to protect copper.
The design of a galvanic anode CP system should consider many factors, including the type of structure, the resistivity of the electrolyte (soil or water) it will operate in, the type of coating and the service life.
The primary calculation is how much anode material will be required to protect the structure for the required time. Too little material may provide protection for a while, but need to be replaced regularly. Too much material would provide protection at an unnecessary cost. The mass in kg is given by equation (5).
The amount of current required corresponds directly to the surface area of the metal exposed to the soil or water, so the application of a coating drastically reduces the mass of anode material required. The better the coating, the less anode material is needed.
Once the mass of material is known, the particular type of anode is chosen. Differently shaped anodes will have a different resistance to earth, which governs how much current can be produced, so the resistance of the anode is calculated to ensure that sufficient current will be available. If the resistance of the anode is too high, either a differently shaped or sized anode is chosen, or a greater quantity of anodes must be used.
The arrangement of the anodes is then planned so as to provide an even distribution of current over the whole structure. For example, if a particular design shows that a pipeline 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) long needs 10 anodes, then approximately one anode per kilometre would be more effective than putting all 10 anodes at one end or in the centre.
As the anode materials used are generally more costly than iron, using this method to protect ferrous metal structures may not appear to be particularly cost effective. However, consideration should also be given to the costs incurred to repair a corroded hull or to replace a steel pipeline or tank because their structural integrity has been compromised by corrosion.
However, there is a limit to the cost effectiveness of a galvanic system. On larger structures, or long pipelines, so many anodes may be needed that it would be more cost-effective to install impressed current cathodic protection.
The basic method is to produce sacrificial anodes through a casting process. However, two casting methods can be distinguished.
The high pressure die-casting process for sacrificial anodes is widespread. It is a fully automated machine process. In order for the manufacturing process to run reliably and in a repeatable manner, a modification of the processed sacrificial anode alloy is required. Alternatively, the gravity casting process is used for the production of the sacrificial anodes. This process is performed manually or partially automated. The alloy does not have to be adapted to the manufacturing process, but is designed for 100% optimum corrosion protection.