Stainless Steel a Definition

Stainless steel is a generic term for a family of corrosion resistant alloy steels containing 10.5% or more chromium. All stainless steels have a high resistance to corrosion. This resistance to attack is due to the naturally occurring chromium-rich oxide film formed on the surface of the steel. Although extremely thin, this invisible, inert film is tightly adherent to the metal and extremely protective in a wide range of corrosive media. The film is rapidly self repairing in the presence of oxygen, and damage by abrasion, cutting or machining is quickly repaired.

Stainless steel does not readily corrode, rust or stain with water as ordinary steel does, but despite the name it is not fully stain-proof, most notably under low oxygen, high salinity, or poor circulation environments. There are different grades and surface finishes of stainless steel to suit the environment the alloy must endure. Stainless steel is used where both the properties of steel and resistance to corrosion are required.

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, and the metal remains lustrous. The layer is impervious to water and air, protecting the metal beneath. Also, this layer quickly reforms when the surface is scratched. This phenomenon is called passivation and is seen in other metals, such as aluminium and titanium. Corrosion-resistance can be adversely affected if the component is used in a non-oxygenated environment, a typical example being underwater keel bolts buried in timber.

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 known as galling. This destructive galling can be best avoided by the use of dissimilar materials for the parts forced together, for example bronze and stainless steel, or even different types of stainless steels (martensitic against austenitic), when metal-to-metal wear is a concern, but two different alloys electrically linked in humid environment work as pile and corrode faster. Nitronic alloys reduce the tendency to gall through selective alloying with manganese and nitrogen. Additionally, threaded joints may be lubricated to prevent galling.

Stainless steel differs from carbon steel by the amount of chromium present. Unprotected carbon steel rusts readily when exposed to air and moisture. This iron oxide film (the rust) is active and accelerates corrosion by forming more iron oxide, and due to the greater volume of the iron oxide this tends to flake and fall away. Stainless steels contain sufficient chromium to form a passive film of chromium oxide, which prevents further surface corrosion by blocking oxygen diffusion to the steel surface and blocks corrosion from spreading into the metal’s internal structure, and due to the similar size of the steel and oxide ions they bond very strongly and remain attached to the surface.

A few corrosion-resistant iron artifacts survive from antiquity. A famous example is the Iron Pillar of Delhi, erected by order of Kumara Gupta I around AD 400. Unlike stainless steel, however, 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 French metallurgist Pierre Berthier, who noted their resistance against attack by some acids and suggested their use in cutlery. 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 practical.

In the late 1890s Hans Goldschmidt of Germany developed an aluminothermic (thermite) process for producing carbon-free chromium. Between 1904 and 1911 several researchers, particularly Leon Guillet of France, prepared alloys that would today be considered stainless steel. Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft built the 366-ton sailing yacht Germania featuring a chrome-nickel steel hull in Germany in 1908. In 1911, Philip Monnartz reported on the relationship between chromium content and corrosion resistance. On October 17, 1912, Krupp engineers Benno Strauss and Eduard Maurer patented austenitic stainless steel as ThyssenKrupp Nirosta.

Similar developments were taking place contemporaneously in the United States, where Christian Dantsizen and Frederick Becket were industrializing ferritic stainless steel. In 1912, Elwood Haynes applied for a US patent on a martensitic stainless steel alloy, which was not granted until 1919. Also in 1912, Harry Brearley of the Brown-Firth research laboratory in Sheffield, England, while seeking a corrosion-resistant alloy for gun barrels, discovered and subsequently industrialized a martensitic stainless steel alloy. The discovery was announced two years later in a January 1915 newspaper article in The New York Times. The metal was later marketed under the ‘Staybrite’ brand by Firth Vickers in England and was used for the new entrance canopy for the Savoy Hotel in London in 1929.[8] Brearley applied for a US patent during 1915 only to find that Haynes had already registered a patent. Brearley and Haynes pooled their funding and with a group of investors formed the American Stainless Steel Corporation, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Stainless steel’s resistance to corrosion and staining, low maintenance and familiar lustre make it an ideal material for many applications. There are over 150 grades of stainless steel, of which fifteen are most commonly used. The alloy is milled into coils, sheets, plates, bars, wire, and tubing to be used in cookware,cutlery, household hardware, surgical instruments, major appliances, industrial equipment (for example, in sugar refineries) and as an automotive and aerospace structural alloy and construction material in large buildings. Storage tanks and tankers used to transport orange juice and other food are often made of stainless steel, because of its corrosion resistance. This also influences its use in commercial kitchens and food processing plants, as it can be steam-cleaned andsterilized and does not need paint or other surface finishes.

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