All About Stainless Steel
The many unique values provided by stainless steel make it a powerful candidate in materials selection. Engineer, specifiers and designers often underestimate or overlook these values because of what is viewed as the higher initial cost of stainless steel. However, over the total life of a project, stainless is often the best value option.
What is Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel is essentially a low carbon steel which contains chromium at 10% or more by weight. It is this addition of chromium that gives the steel its unique stainless, corrosion resisting properties.
The chromium content of the steel allows the formation of a rough, adherent, invisible, corrosionresisting chromium oxide film on the steel surface. If damaged mechanically or chemically, this film is self-healing, providing that oxygen, even in very small amounts, is present. The corrosion resistance and other useful properties of the steel are enhanced by increased chromium content and the addition of other elements such as molybdenum, nickel and nitrogen.There are more than 60 grades of stainless steel. However, the entire group can be divided into five classes. Each is identified by the alloying elements which affect their microstructure and for which each is named.
Benefits of Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is defined as a ferrous alloy with a minimum of 10% chromium content. The name originates from the fact that stainless steel does not stain, corrode or rust as easily as ordinary steel. This material is also called corrosion resistant steel when it is not detailed exactly to its alloy type and grade, particularly in the aviation industry.
Stainless steels have higher resistance to oxidation (rust) and corrosion in many natural and man made environments; however, it is important to select the correct type and grade of stainless steel for the particular application.
High oxidation resistance in air at ambient temperature is normally achieved with additions of a minimum of 13% (by weight) chromium, and up to 26% is used for harsh environments. The chromium forms a passivation layer of chromium(III) oxide (Cr2O3) when exposed to oxygen. The layer is too thin to be visible, meaning the metal stays shiny. It is, however, impervious to water and air, protecting the metal beneath. Also, when the surface is scratched this layer quickly reforms. This phenomenon is called passivation by materials scientists, and is seen in other metals, such as aluminium. When stainless steel parts such as nuts and bolts are forced together, the oxide layer can be scraped off causing the parts to weld together. When disassembled, the welded material may be torn and pitted, an effect that is known as galling.
Commercial value of stainless steel
Stainless steel's resistance to corrosion and staining, low maintenance, relative inexpense, and familiar luster make it an ideal base material for a host of commercial applications. There are over 150 grades of stainless steel, of which fifteen are most common. The alloy is milled into sheets, plates, bars, wire, and tubing to be used in cookware, cutlery, hardware, surgical instruments, major appliances, industrial equipment, and building material in skyscrapers and large buildings. See "Use in sculpture and building facades", below, for more.
Stainless steel is 100% recyclable. In fact, over 50% of new stainless steel is made from remelted scrap metal, rendering it a somewhat eco-friendly material.
Types of stainless steel
There are different types of stainless steels: when nickel is added, for instance, the austenite structure of iron is stabilized. This crystal structure makes such steels non-magnetic and less brittle at low temperatures. For higher hardness and strength, carbon is added. When subjected to adequate heat treatment these steels are used as razor blades, cutlery, tools etc.
Significant quantities of manganese have been used in many stainless steel compositions. Manganese preserves an austenitic structure in the steel as does nickel, but at a lower cost.
Stainless steels are also classified by their crystalline structure:
A few corrosion-resistant iron artifacts survive from antiquity. A famous (and very large) example is the Iron Pillar of Delhi, erected by order of Kumara Gupta I around the year AD 400. However, unlike stainless steel, these artifacts owe their durability not to chromium, but to their high phosphorus content, which together with favorable local weather conditions promotes the formation of a solid protective passivation layer of iron oxides and phosphates, rather than the non-protective, cracked rust layer that develops on most ironwork.
The corrosion resistance of iron-chromium alloys was first recognized in 1821 by the French metallurgist Pierre Berthier, who noted their resistance against attack by some acids and suggested their use in cutlery. However, the metallurgists of the 19th century were unable to produce the combination of low carbon and high chromium found in most modern stainless steels, and the high-chromium alloys they could produce were too brittle to be of practical interest.
This situation changed in the late 1890s, when Hans Goldschmidt of Germany developed an aluminothermic (thermite) process for producing carbon-free chromium. In the years 1904-1911, several researchers, particularly Leon Guillet of France, prepared alloys that would today be considered stainless steel. In 1911, Philip Monnartz of Germany reported on the relationship between the chromium content and corrosion resistance of these alloys.
Harry Brearley of the Brown-Firth research laboratory in Sheffield, England is most commonly credited as the "inventor" of stainless steel. In 1913, while seeking an erosion-resistant alloy for gun barrels, he discovered and subsequently industrialized a martensitic stainless steel alloy. However, similar industrial developments were taking place contemporaneously at the Krupp Iron Works in Germany, where Eduard Maurer and Benno Strauss were developing an austenitic alloy (21% chromium, 7% nickel), and in the United States, where Christian Dantsizen and Frederick Becket were industrializing ferritic stainless.
Already in the year 1908 Krupp had built a famous sailing-yacht featuring a chrome-nickel steel hull, or so it seems its wreck being currently investigated by the Bureau of Archaeological Research of the State of Florida.
Stainless Steel Grades