Updated: Jan 20, 2022
Everything you need to Know about Steel Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, and sometimes other elements. Because of its high tensile strength and low cost, it is a major component used in buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, trains, automobiles, machines, appliances, and weapons. Iron is the base metal of steel. Iron is able to take on two crystalline forms (allotropic forms), body centered cubic and face centered cubic, depending on its temperature. In the body-centered cubic arrangement, there is an iron atom in the center and eight atoms at the vertices of each cubic unit cell; in the face-centered cubic, there is one atom at the center of each of the six faces of the cubic unit cell and eight atoms at its vertices. It is the interaction of the allotropes of iron with the alloying elements, primarily carbon, which gives steel and cast iron their range of unique properties. In pure iron, the crystal structure has relatively little resistance to the iron atoms slipping past one another, and so pure iron is quite ductile, or soft and easily formed. In steel, small amounts of carbon, other elements, and inclusions within the iron act as hardening agents that prevent the movement of dislocations. The carbon in typical steel alloys may contribute up to 2.14% of its weight. Varying the amount of carbon and many other alloying elements, as well as controlling their chemical and physical makeup in the final steel (either as solute elements, or as precipitated phases), slows the movement of those dislocations that make pure iron ductile, and thus controls and enhances its qualities. These qualities include the hardness, quenching behavior, need for annealing, tempering behavior, yield strength, and tensile strength of the resulting steel. The increase in steel’s strength compared to pure iron is possible only by reducing iron’s ductility. Steel was produced in bloomery furnaces for thousands of years, but its large-scale, industrial use began only after more efficient production methods were devised in the 17th century, with the introduction of the blast furnace and production of crucible steel. This was followed by the open-hearth furnace and then the Bessemer process in England in the mid-19th century. With the invention of the Bessemer process, a new era of mass-produced steel began. Mild steel replaced wrought iron. Further refinements in the process, such as basic oxygen steelmaking (BOS), largely replaced earlier methods by further lowering the cost of production and increasing the quality of the final product. Today, steel is one of the most common manmade materials in the world, with more than 1.6 billion tons produced annually. Modern steel is generally identified by various grades defined by assorted standards organizations. Definitions and related materials The noun steel originates from the Proto Germanic adjective stahliją or stakhlijan (made of steel), which is related to stahlaz or stahliją (standing firm). The carbon content of steel is between 0.002% and 2.14% by weight for plain iron–carbon alloys. These values vary depending on alloying elements such as manganese, chromium, nickel, tungsten, and so on. In contrast, cast iron does undergo eutectic reaction. Too little carbon content leaves (pure) iron quite soft, ductile, and weak. Carbon contents higher than those of steel make a brittle alloy commonly called pig iron. While iron alloyed with carbon is called carbon steel, alloy steel is steel to which other alloying elements have been intentionally added to modify the characteristics of steel. Common alloying elements include: manganese, nickel, chromium, molybdenum, boron, titanium, vanadium, tungsten, cobalt, and niobium. Additional elements, most frequently considered undesirable, are also important in steel: phosphorus, sulfur, silicon, and traces of oxygen, nitrogen, and copper. Plain carbon-iron alloys with a higher than 2.1% carbon content are known as cast iron. With modern steelmaking techniques such as powder metal forming, it is possible to make very high-carbon (and other alloy material) steels, but such are not common. Cast iron is not malleable even when hot, but it can be formed by casting as it has a lower melting point than steel and good castability properties. Certain compositions of cast iron, while retaining the economies of melting and casting, can be heat treated after casting to make malleable iron or ductile iron objects. Steel is distinguishable from wrought iron (now largely obsolete), which may contain a small amount of carbon but large amounts of slag. Material properties Iron is commonly found in the Earth’s crust in the form of an ore, usually an iron oxide, such as magnetite or hematite. Iron is extracted from iron ore by removing the oxygen through its combination with a preferred chemical partner such as carbon which is then lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This process, known as smelting, was first applied to metals with lower melting points, such as tin, which melts at about 250°C (482 F), and copper, which melts at about 1,100°C (2,010°F), and the combination, bronze, which has a melting point lower than 1,083 C (1,981°F). In comparison, cast iron melts at about 1,375°C (2,507°F).Small quantities of iron were smelted in ancient times, in the solid state, by heating the ore in a charcoal fire and then welding the clumps together with a hammer and in the process squeezing out the impurities. With care, the carbon content could be controlled by moving it around in the fire. Unlike copper and tin, liquid or solid iron dissolves carbon quite readily. All of these temperatures could be reached with ancient methods used since the Bronze Age. Since the oxidation rate of iron increases rapidly beyond 800°C (1,470 F), it is important that smelting take place in a low-oxygen environment. Smelting, using carbon to reduce iron oxides, results in an alloy (pig iron) that retains too much carbon to be called steel. The excess carbon and other impurities are removed in a subsequent step. Other materials are often added to the iron/carbon mixture to produce steel with desired properties. Nickel and manganese in steel add to its tensile strength and make the austenite form of the iron-carbon solution more stable, chromium increases hardness and melting temperature, and vanadium also increases hardness while making it less prone to metal fatigue. To inhibit corrosion, at least 11% chromium is added to steel so that a hard oxide forms on the metal surface; this is known as stainless steel. Tungsten slows the formation of cementite, keeping carbon in the iron matrix and allowing martensite to preferentially form at slower quench rates, resulting in high speed steel. On the other hand, sulfur, nitrogen, and phosphorus are considered contaminants that make steel more brittle and are removed from the steel melt during processing. The density of steel varies based on the alloying constituents but usually ranges between 7,750 and 8,050 kg/m3 (484 and 503 lb/cu ft), or 7.75 and 8.05 g/cm3 (4.48 and 4.65 oz/cu in). Even in a narrow range of concentrations of mixtures of carbon and iron that make a steel, a number of different metallurgical structures, with very different properties can form. Understanding such properties is essential to making quality steel. At room temperature, the most stable form of pure iron is the body-centered cubic (BCC) structure called alpha iron or α-iron. It is a fairly soft metal that can dissolve only a small concentration of carbon, no more than 0.005% at 0 °C (32 °F) and 0.021 wt% at 723°C (1,333 F). The inclusion of carbon in alpha iron is called ferrite. At 910 °C, pure iron transforms into a face-centered cubic (FCC) structure, called gamma iron or γ-iron. The inclusion of carbon in gamma iron is called austenite. The more open FCC structure of austenite can dissolve considerably more carbon, as much as 2.1% (38 times that of ferrite) carbon at 1,148°C (2,098°F), which reflects the upper carbon content of steel, beyond which is cast iron. When carbon moves out of solution with iron, it forms a very hard, but brittle material called cementite (Fe3C). When steels with exactly 0.8% carbon (known as a eutectoid steel), are cooled, the austenitic phase (FCC) of the mixture attempts to revert to the ferrite phase (BCC). The carbon no longer fits within the FCC austenite structure, resulting in an excess of carbon. One way for carbon to leave the austenite is for it to precipitate out of solution as cementite, leaving behind a surrounding phase of BCC iron called ferrite with a small percentage of carbon in solution. The two, ferrite and cementite, precipitate simultaneously producing a layered structure called pearlite, named for its resemblance to mother of pearl. In a hypereutectoid composition (greater than 0.8% carbon), the carbon will first precipitate out as large inclusions of cementite at the austenite grain boundaries until the percentage of carbon in the grains has decreased to the eutectoid composition (0.8% carbon), at which point the pearlite structure forms. For steels that have less than 0.8% carbon (hypoeutectoid), ferrite will first form within the grains until the remaining composition rises to 0.8% of carbon, at which point the pearlite structure will form. No large inclusions of cementite will form at the boundaries in hypoeuctoid steel. The above assumes that the cooling process is very slow, allowing enough time for the carbon to migrate. As the rate of cooling is increased the carbon will have less time to migrate to form carbide at the grain boundaries but will have increasingly large amounts of pearlite of a finer and finer structure within the grains; hence the carbide is more widely dispersed and acts to prevent slip of defects within those grains, resulting in hardening of the steel. At the very high cooling rates produced by quenching, the carbon has no time to migrate but is locked within the face-centered austenite and forms martensite. Martensite is a highly strained and stressed, supersaturated form of carbon and iron and is exceedingly hard but brittle. Depending on the carbon content, the martensitic phase takes different forms. Below 0.2% carbon, it takes on a ferrite BCC crystal form, but at higher carbon content it takes a body-centered tetragonal (BCT) structure. There is no thermal activation energy for the transformation from austenite to martensite. Moreover, there is no compositional change so the atoms generally retain their same neighbors. Martensite has a lower density (it expands during the cooling) than does austenite, so that the transformation between them results in a change of volume. In this case, expansion occurs. Internal stresses from this expansion generally take the form of compression on the crystals of martensite and tension on the remaining ferrite, with a fair amount of shear on both constituents. If quenching is done improperly, the internal stresses can cause a part to shatter as it cools. At the very least, they cause internal work hardening and other microscopic imperfections. It is common for quench cracks to form when steel is water quenched, although they may not always be visible. Heat Treatment There are many types of heat treating processes available to steel. The most common are annealing, quenching, and tempering. Heat treatment is effective on compositions above the eutectoid composition (hypereutectoid) of 0.8% carbon. Hypoeutectoid steel does not benefit from heat treatment. Annealing is the process of heating the steel to a sufficiently high temperature to relieve local internal stresses. It does not create a general softening of the product but only locally relieves strains and stresses locked up within the material. Annealing goes through three phases: recovery, recrystallization, and grain growth. The temperature required to anneal a particular steel depends on the type of annealing to be achieved and the alloying constituents. Quenching involves heating the steel to create the austenite phase then quenching it in water or oil. This rapid cooling results in a hard but brittle martensitic structure. The steel is then tempered, which is just a specialized type of annealing, to reduce brittleness. In this application the annealing (tempering) process transforms some of the martensite into cementite, or spheroidite and hence it reduces the internal stresses and defects. The result is a more ductile and fracture-resistant steel. Steel Production When iron is smelted from its ore, it contains more carbon than is desirable. To become steel, it must be reprocessed to reduce the carbon to the correct amount, at which point other elements can be added. In the past, steel facilities would cast the raw steel product into ingots which would be stored until use in further refinement processes that resulted in the finished product. In modern facilities, the initial product is close to the final composition and is continuously cast into long slabs, cut and shaped into bars and extrusions and heat treated to produce a final product. Today only a small fraction is cast into ingots. Approximately 96% of steel is continuously cast, while only 4% is produced as ingots. The ingots are then heated in a soaking pit and hot rolled into slabs, billets, or blooms. Slabs are hot or cold rolled into sheet metal or plates. Billets are hot or cold rolled into bars, rods, and wire. Blooms are hot or cold rolled into structural steel, such as I-beams and rails. In modern steel mills these processes often occur in one assembly line, with ore coming in and finished steel products coming out. Sometimes after a steel’s final rolling, it is heat treated for strength; however, this is relatively rare. Ancient steel Steel was known in antiquity and was produced in bloomeries and crucibles. The earliest known production of steel is seen in pieces of ironware excavated from an archaeological site in Anatolia (Kaman-Kalehöyük) and are nearly 4,000 years old, dating from 1800 BC. Horace identifies steel weapons such as the falcata in the Iberian Peninsula, while Noric steel was used by the Roman military. The reputation of Seric iron of South India (wootz steel) grew considerably in the rest of the world. Metal production sites in Sri Lanka employed wind furnaces driven by the monsoon winds, capable of producing high-carbon steel. Large-scale Wootz steel production in Tamilakam using crucibles and carbon sources such as the plant Avāram occurred by the sixth century BC, the pioneering precursor to modern steel production and metallurgy. The Chinese of the Warring States period (403–221 BC) had quench-hardened steel, while Chinese of the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) created steel by melting together wrought iron with cast iron, gaining an ultimate product of a carbon-intermediate steel by the 1st century AD. There is evidence that carbon steel was made in Western Tanzania by the ancestors of the Haya people as early as 2,000 years ago by a complex process of “pre-heating” allowing temperatures inside a furnace to reach 1300 to 1400 C. Steel Industry The steel industry is often considered an indicator of economic progress, because of the critical role played by steel in infrastructural and overall economic development. In 1980, there were more than 500,000 U.S. steelworkers. By 2000, the number of steelworkers fell to 224,000. The economic boom in China and India caused a massive increase in the demand for steel. Between 2000 and 2005, world steel demand increased by 6%. Since 2000, several Indian and Chinese steel firms have risen to prominence, such as Tata Steel (which bought Corus Group in 2007), Baosteel Group and Shagang Group. As of 2017, though, ArcelorMittal is the world’s largest steel producer. In 2005, the British Geological Survey stated China was the top steel producer with about one-third of the world share; Japan, Russia, and the US followed respectively. In 2008, steel began trading as a commodity on the London Metal Exchange. At the end of 2008, the steel industry faced a sharp downturn that led to many cut-backs. Uses Iron and steel are used widely in the construction of roads, railways, other infrastructure, appliances, and buildings. Most large modern structures, such as stadiums and skyscrapers, bridges, and airports, are supported by a steel skeleton. Even those with a concrete structure employ steel for reinforcing. In addition, it sees widespread use in major appliances and cars. Despite growth in usage of aluminum, it is still the main material for car bodies. Steel is used in a variety of other construction materials, such as bolts, nails, and screws and other household products and cooking utensils. Other common applications include shipbuilding, pipelines, mining, offshore construction, aerospace, white goods (e.g. washing machines), heavy equipment such as bulldozers, office furniture, steel wool, tools, and armor in the form of personal vests or vehicle armor (better known as rolled homogeneous armor in this role).