Stainless Steel
Monday | 27 August, 2012 | 9:04 am

A century of stainless

By Nick Wright

In Beijing, the ISSF marks 100 years of stainless steel’s first production

August 2012 - For millennia, iron has been formed in one way or another—cast, drawn, forged, welded—and for just as long, people have tinkered with metallurgy to hinder corrosion and impart strength. As early as 3,000 B.C., the Chinese Qin dynasty used chromium to strengthen weapons. But the International Stainless Steel Forum, Brussels, is recognizing the 100th anniversary of stainless steel this year, citing two key mileposts.

In 1912, two Germans filed the first patent for stainless steel. The following year, Harry Brearley produced the first martensitic chromium stainless steel heat for gun barrels in Sheffield, England, after discovering its corrosion resistance. It’s only been in the last century that metallurgists and mills have understood fully how to control stainless steel’s properties by combining alloys and heat. Two scientists in the United States patented ferritic stainless steel in 1915.

 “These are the two dates I’d say would really mark the first research and commercial production of stainless steel,” says Pascal Payet-Gaspard, secretary general of the ISSF. There are plans for commemorative events in Sheffield for next year.

The ISSF launched an exhibition in Beijing to mark the century, which coincided with ISSF’s 16th Annual Conference, highlights the stainless steel industry and details stainless steel’s far-reaching applications, its alloying elements, recyclability and environmental accolades. This year is the first that ISSF held its annual meeting in China. It’s no coincidence the country produces approximately 30 percent of the world’s stainless steel, the most in the world, according to the ISSF’s 2011 data.

Because stainless steel is a relatively recent alloy compared to copper or iron, reminding the metals community of its roots is important, says Payet-Gaspard. In Europe, a rapid continuum of metal discoveries during the 18th century culminated in the alloy’s production in 1913, he says. In 1751, Swedish scientist Axel Fredrik Cronstedt discovered nickel. Another Swede, Karl-Wilhelm Scheele, is credited with identifying molybdenum in 1778. Then in 1797, Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin, discovered chromium. Aluminum wasn’t produced until the mid-19th century, he says. Although nickel and molybdenum favor corrosion resistance, it’s the chromium oxide layer in stainless that gives it rust-defying characteristics.

“Stainless steel has been growing extremely rapidly over the years. Even in the last decade, we had 6 percent growth with the [economic] crisis,” Payet-Gaspard says. “There’s tremendous growth potential for stainless steel.”

Beyond the horizon
Considering the seen and unseen applications stainless steel has worked its way into, everything from pots and pans to airplane parts, looking into the crystal ball for future uses is murky at best. Most exhaust systems in cars nowadays are stainless steel. Current developments in capital goods for aerospace, biofuels and food preparation industries point to possible markets. As costs of living decrease in emerging markets and goods become more affordable, people will look for appliances that last longer.

Two big technological breakthroughs for the alloy, which is defined by having a minimum of 10.5 percent chromium, concern its costs of production, says Payet-Gaspard. The argon oxygen decarburization, known as the AOD process, reduced refining problems with stainless steel in the 1950s. Second, the continuous casting process (rolling and annealing) has cut production costs, making stainless steel more competitive.

“There is quite a lot of progress possible on the technology side,” he says.

On the commercial side, food preparation and catering is a promising growth area.

 “Dairy and processing agricultural products into finishing products are using lots of stainless steel,” says Payet-Gaspard. He adds the stainless steel industry should pay attention to food safety standards, too, as regulations have become more stringent. “You cannot have a high standard of hygiene without stainless steel.” MM



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