Why Does Stainless Steel Resist Rust?
Stainless steel resists rust because it contains a high proportion of chromium to carbon. Before the arrival of this alloy just before the First World War, knives and other household articles made of steel easily rusted unless very carefully dried. It was an English researcher named Harry Brearley who discovered that rust was encouraged by the carbon in steel and other metals.
The less carbon and the more chromium in steel, the better it would resist rust. But a careful balance had to be struck. Completely carbon-free steel was impossible to make, and only a limited amount of chromium could be included, because it tended to make steel brittle. Brearley discovered a satisfactory formula only after many experiments.
Stainless steel does not readily corrode, rust or stain with water as ordinary steel does. However, it is not fully stain-proof in low-oxygen, high-salinity, or poor air-circulation environments. There are various 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 corrosion resistance are required.
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 making it easier for more iron oxide to form. Since iron oxide has lower density than steel, the film expands and tends to flake and fall away. In comparison, stainless steels contain sufficient chromium to undergo passivation, forming an inert film of chromium oxide on the surface. This layer prevents further corrosion by blocking oxygen diffusion to the steel surface and stops corrosion from spreading into the bulk of the metal. Passivation occurs only if the proportion of chromium is high enough and oxygen is present in it.
Stainless steels resistance to corrosion and staining, low maintenance, and familiar lustre make it an ideal material for many applications. 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 and sterilized and does not need paint or other surface finishes.
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 1872, the Englishmen Clark and Woods patented an alloy that would today be considered a stainless steel. 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 17 October 1912, Krupp engineers Benno Strauss and Eduard Maurer patented austenitic stainless steel as 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.
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.
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.
In the beginning stainless steel was sold in the US under different brand names like “Allegheny metal” and “Nirosta steel”. Even within the metallurgy industry the eventual name remained unsettled; in 1921 one trade journal was calling it “unstainable steel”. In 1929, before the Great Depression hit, over 25,000 tons of stainless steel were manufactured and sold in the US.