With a broad range of useful qualities, stainless steel could easily be one of the most beneficial and valued materials around.
You might wonder what common materials, objects, and structures are made of stainless steel. They range from flatware and cutlery to chemical tanks. They also include such varied applications as escalators and kitchen appliances.
Let’s find out how stainless steel is produced and its most common qualities. How do these explain how and why its applications have become so far-ranging?
First, though, we’ll learn a little about how stainless steel is made.
What Is Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel’s raw materials consist of iron ore, carbon, chromium, silicon, nickel, and other materials. These are melted together in an electric furnace and subjected to eight to 12 hours of intense heat.
You might be wondering how to tell stainless steel from another common type of steel, carbon steel. Chemically speaking, the primary distinguishing attribute is the percentage of iron, carbon, and the other metals each contains.
Plain carbon steel or “mild steel” is the steel most often compared to stainless. It is made by adding carbon to iron to harden it. Doing this gives it higher carbon content with a low melting point.
In contrast, stainless steel contains a high degree of chromium, along with nickel, nitrogen, and molybdenum. The chromium gives it a transparent surface layer that prevents it from staining. It also builds resistance to corrosion (as discussed below).
Plain carbon steel is somewhat more substantial and rigid than stainless steel due to its lower carbon levels. It is also lighter in weight than stainless, and stainless tends to be brittle compared to carbon steel.
There are three main types (alloys) of stainless steel: austenitic, ferritic, and martensitic. Within these types, there are different grades. Each type and grade is known for specific properties and applications.
The Qualities of Stainless Steel
Despite the differing types of stainless steel and their uses, all share certain qualities. For example, some types have better corrosion resistance. Others are harder. And some are magnetic, while others are not.
What follows are some stainless steel qualities that define it broadly:
Stainless steel has a lustrous appearance. It’s one quality distinguishing it from plain carbon steel with its dull or matte appearance. Stainless steel’s chromium coating makes it attractive, even in its natural state.
That’s one reason why stainless steel is such a popular metal for flatware. Real silverware, if people even own it, is for special occasions. Silver tarnishes and, thus, needs regular polishing. But stainless always looks its best.
Many metals tarnish, rust, or corrode. The corrosion process, which involves oxidization the metal can protect the outer surface. But it also gradually destroys the metal.
The green color of the Statue of Liberty comes from the corrosion of its copper material. Corrosion can cause severe damage over the long term, though. That’s why a corrosion-resistant metal like stainless steel gets so much use.
3.High Tensile Strength
Tensile strength is the amount of force needed to stretch something, like a rope, wire, or heavy structural beam, to its breaking point. A material’s tensile strength is the maximum amount of tensile stress it can withstand before failing.
Tensile strength is an excellent property for wire and cables made from stainless steel. You don’t always realize how heavy those cables hanging from utility poles are. Being made from stainless steel provides strength and lightens the load a bit.
4.Malleable and Easy to Fabricate
Because of its tensile strength, stainless steel can be quite pliable and bends, up to a point, without cracking or breaking. Its nickel content enables Austenitic stainless, the most common type, to bend and stretch without fissuring, cracking, or breaking.
Thus, this stainless steel type is often used for making kitchen and utility sinks. Moreover, the high strength of cold-worked (e.g., crimped or rolled) austenitic stainless steel makes it the preferred material for transit cars, springs, seatbelt anchors, and even knife blades.
5.Impervious to Temperature Extremes
This quality, also called lower thermal conductivity, is another beneficial stainless steel quality that applies especially to austenitic stainless.
Austenitic hold up to some of the coldest temperatures, such as that of liquid helium. So they’re widely used in cryogenic applications.
Yet, they’re also suited to extremely high temperatures. They have used in heat exchangers, boilers, turbines, furnaces, and automotive exhaust systems.
We should point out that different alloys have different temperature tolerances, and the highest temperature most can withstand before starting to fail is around 900°F.
6.Durable and Long-Lasting
With their low maintenance requirements, most stainless steel products will last a long time. The average life of a stainless steel product is from 15-25 years and sometimes much longer.
This can be attributed to stainless steel’s chemical composition and the properties it gains from its component materials. These include corrosion resistance, withstanding temperature extremes, tensile strength, and other qualities discussed here.
7.Eco-Friendly, Recyclable, and Sustainable
These qualities are why the International Stainless Steel Forum (ISSF) believes stainless holds great promise for a global future of sustainability. The organization cites the durable, hygienic, and recyclable qualities of this metal.
Here are several of stainless steel’s impressive modern-day applications:
- Biomass fuel production
- Nuclear energy
- Solar power
- Water treatment and desalination
- Home cooking and eating
- Vehicle parts
- Rail and subway cars
- Transit hubs and their fixtures
- Public buildings
- Outdoor furniture
- Food and beverage production
- Medical equipment
- And much more
If all these current stainless steel uses amaze you, imagine what lies in this material’s future. Only time will tell!
What Is Stainless Steel Today — And What Is Its Promise for the Future?
At this point, you might be reeling from all the stainless steel facts we’ve shared. We’ll bet you learned a thing or two about this material that surrounds us every day. We use it for routine tasks, such as removing a spoon from the drawer or turning on the stove.
What we probably like best about stainless steel, though, besides its everyday conveniences, is its promise for a bright, life-sustaining, and renewable future. We need the sorts of changes stainless can help bring to fruition more than most realize.
Thanks for visiting our site! If you find our stories as fascinating as we hope, and if you liked reading about stainless steel, we encourage you to come back and enjoy more articles.