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  • How many types of stainless steel are there?

    Stainless steel is usually divided into 5 types:

    1. Ferritic – These steels are based on Chromium with small amounts of Carbon usually less than 0.10%. These steels have a similar microstructure to carbon and low alloy steels. They are usually limited in use to relatively thin sections due to lack of toughness in welds. However, where welding is not required they offer a wide range of applications. They cannot be hardened by heat treatment. High Chromium steels with additions of Molybdenum can be used in quite aggressive conditions such as sea water. Ferritic steels are also chosen for their resistance to stress corrosion cracking. They are not as formable as austenitic stainless steels. They are magnetic.
    2. Austenitic - These steels are the most common. Their microstructure is derived from the addition of Nickel, Manganese and Nitrogen. It is the same structure as occurs in ordinary steels at much higher temperatures. This structure gives these steels their characteristic combination of weldability and formability. Corrosion resistance can be enhanced by adding Chromium, Molybdenum and Nitrogen. They cannot be hardened by heat treatment but have the useful property of being able to be work hardened to high strength levels whilst retaining a useful level of ductility and toughness. Standard austenitic steels are vulnerable to stress corrosion cracking. Higher nickel austenitic steels have increased resistance to stress corrosion cracking. They are nominally non-magnetic but usually exhibit some magnetic response depending on the composition and the work hardening of the steel.
    3. Martensitic - These steels are similar to ferritic steels in being based on Chromium but have higher Carbon levels up as high as 1%. This allows them to be hardened and tempered much like carbon and low-alloy steels. They are used where high strength and moderate corrosion resistance is required. They are more common in long products than in sheet and plate form. They have generally low weldability and formability. They are magnetic.
    4. Duplex - These steels have a microstructure which is approximately 50% ferritic and 50% austenitic. This gives them a higher strength than either ferritic or austenitic steels. They are resistant to stress corrosion cracking. So called “lean duplex” steels are formulated to have comparable corrosion resistance to standard austenitic steels but with enhanced strength and resistance to stress corrosion cracking. “Superduplex” steels have enhanced strength and resistance to all forms of corrosion compared to standard austenitic steels. They are weldable but need care in selection of welding consumables and heat input. They have moderate formability. They are magnetic but not so much as the ferritic, martensitic and PH grades due to the 50% austenitic phase.
    5. Precipitation hardening (PH) - These steels can develop very high strength by adding elements such as Copper, Niobium and Aluminium to the steel. With a suitable “aging” heat treatment, very fine particles form in the matrix of the steel which imparts strength. These steels can be machined to quite intricate shapes requiring good tolerances before the final aging treatment as there is minimal distortion from the final treatment. This is in contrast to conventional hardening and tempering in martensitic steels where distortion is more of a problem. Corrosion resistance is comparable to standard austenitic steels like 1.4301 (304). 
  • What forms of corrosion can occur in stainless steels?

    The most common forms of corrosion in stainless steel are:

    1. Pitting corrosion - The passive layer on stainless steel can be attacked by certain chemical species. The chloride ion Cl- is the most common of these and is found in everyday materials such as salt and bleach. Pitting corrosion is avoided by making sure that stainless steel does not come into prolonged contact with harmful chemicals or by choosing a grade of steel which is more resistant to attack. The pitting corrosion resistance can be assessed using the Pitting Resistance Equivalent Number calculated from the alloy content.
    2. Crevice corrosion - Stainless steel requires a supply of oxygen to make sure that the passive layer can form on the surface. In very tight crevices, it is not always possible for the oxygen to gain access to the stainless steel surface thereby causing it to be vulnerable to attack. Crevice corrosion is avoided by sealing crevices with a flexible sealant or by using a more corrosion resistant grade.
    3. General corrosion - Normally, stainless steel does not corrode uniformly as do ordinary carbon and alloy steels. However, with some chemicals, notably acids, the passive layer may be attacked uniformly depending on concentration and temperature and the metal loss is distributed over the entire surface of the steel. Hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid at some concentrations are particular aggressive towards stainless steel.
    4. Stress corrosion cracking (SCC) - This is a relatively rare form of corrosion which requires a very specific combination of tensile stress, temperature and corrosive species, often the chloride ion, for it to occur. Typical applications where SCC can occur are hot water tanks and swimming pools. Another form known as sulphide stress corrosion cracking (SSCC) is associated with hydrogen sulphide in oil and gas exploration and production.
    5. Intergranular corrosion - This is now quite a rare form of corrosion. If the Carbon level in the steel is too high, Chromium can combine with Carbon to form Chromium Carbide. This occurs at temperatures between about 450-850 deg C. This process is also called sensitisation and typically occurs during welding. The Chromium available to form the passive layer is effectively reduced and corrosion can occur. It is avoided by choosing a low carbon grade the so-called 'L' grades or by using a steel with Titanium or Niobium which preferentially combines with Carbon.
    6. Galvanic corrosion - If two dissimilar metals are in contact with each other and with an electrolyte e.g. water or other solution, it is possible for a galvanic cell to be set up. This is rather like a battery and can accelerate corrosion of the less 'noble' metal. It can avoided by separating the metals with a non-metallic insulator such as rubber.
  • Does stainless steel corrode?

    Although stainless steel is much more resistant to corrosion than ordinary carbon or alloy steels, in some circumstances it can corrode. It is 'stain-less' not 'stain-impossible'. In normal atmospheric or water based environments, stainless steel will not corrode as demonstrated by domestic sink units, cutlery, saucepans and work-surfaces.
  • When was stainless steel discovered?

    There is a widely held view that stainless steel was discovered in 1913 by Sheffield metallurgist Harry Brearley. He was experimenting with different types of steel for weapons and noticed that a 13% Chromium steel had not corroded after several months. 
  • What Is Stainless Steel?

    Stainless steel is an alloy of Iron with a minimum of 10.5% Chromium. Chromium produces a thin layer of oxide on the surface of the steel known as the 'passive layer'. This prevents any further corrosion of the surface. Increasing the amount of Chromium gives an increased resistance to corrosion.
    Stainless steel also contains varying amounts of Carbon, Silicon and Manganese. Other elements such as Nickel and Molybdenum may be added to impart other useful properties such as enhanced formability and increased corrosion resistance.
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