Overview of Major Steels
3. Some Special Steels
|There is nothing really special about
the steels below except that the all go to some extremes for just one
"special" property. As far as "commonness" is concerned,
they might be all around you. That doesn't mean that you and about everybody
else out there are aware of that.
Here is the list of what follows:
|High Purity Steels|
|High purity steels are not steels to be directly used for products. The term just denotes a starting condition. You also could just call it "iron" in a chemical sense, always meaning that the stuff in question is clean. High purity steel, also called clean steel, thus is steel with a very low concentration of impurity elements such as phosphorus (P), sulfur (S), oxygen (O), nitrogen, (N), hydrogen (H), and particularly carbon (C). Just as important: there are also no inclusions or other non-steel objects in the steel.|
|A somewhat more precise nomenclature suggested on
|Whatever that means. Essentially we are talking about not having anything in there except for the alloy elements that you wanted to add in order to turn high-purity iron into some steel. Note that you need no longer add manganese to counter evil effects of the impurity sulfur, and so on.|
|In order to get there, you need to fight on
|So it's not easy. Nor is it cheap. You do everything you do for regular cheap-and-dirty steel and then some - at additional costs. Nevertheless, "clean steel" is the way to go. All the unclean stuff compromises the properties, especially in the long run; here is a particular striking example. Customers are tightening the requirements. The table below gives you an idea about some present specifications, and you can be sure that with time they will be made even tighter.|
|The state of the art around 2010 are impurity concentrations of N+O+S+P < 50 ppm. Nevertheless, even with a sulfur (S) concentration as low as 10 ppm, you still get some MnS precipitates, which are undesired.|
|There is a slight irony in this. Whenever we look
at ancient steel, inclusions of slag,
residual charcoal, dirt, and God knows what else was encountered. That was a
major problem and caused a lot of "innovations", e.g. all those
complex ways of forging like folding or faggoting, pattern welding, piling, and
so on. On top of that we had hardening by using carbon and / or phosphorus.
When we look at modern steel (e.g. by reading text books) we primarily discuss the various alloy elements used, processing parameters, and all kinds of special treatments. What we usually don't discuss all that much are inclusions because compared to ancient steel there isn't much.
That is no longer justified. In the case of modern steel we also have inclusions of oxides, sulfides, dirt, and God knows what else, just at a much lower level compared to ancient times. And these inclusion are becoming a bigger and bigger problem.
|You always will have some inclusions. You might even have a lot, look at this picture! If you are lucky, you will not notice them much, If you are unlucky, the one and only inclusion in a large batch of steel ends up in the wheel of your railway car or in your sword, leading to unexpected fracture, killing you swiftly and unexpectedly in the fullness of time.|
|Since the name "stainless" for non-rusting steel was assigned to "chromium steels" as early as 1912, a new kind of corrosion resistant steel coming up much later was termed "weathering steel". In contrast to stainless steels it does not rely on forming a protective chromium oxide layer but emulates the behavior of metals like aluminum in forming a protective iron oxide layer.|
|Of course, as soon as steel science started in earnest, i.e. around 1900, the rust problem was looked into by many researchers and corporations. In the 1930s, U.S Steel Corporation discovered that steels containing certain amounts of Cu, P and other alloying elements showed a good resistance to atmospheric corrosion in industrial and rural environments. But the stuff did not form a completely protective oxide layer and still showed a high corrosion rate if chlorine ions (Cl-) were present. Since "chlorine ions" is just a fancy way of saying "salt water" or ocean air, those steels were not much good.|
|It took a lot more time and effort to figure out exactly how to alloy and process iron so that a steel results that forms a protective iorn oxide layer that is not only immune to chlorine ions but self-heals if cracks develop due to some mechanical loading, for example.|
|Weathering steel typically goes by the trade mark "Corten steel" and has been in use since about 1960. Typical compositions (in wt%) are|
|Nothing spectacular there; we have a low-alloy mix. However, the intentional use of phosphorous (P), sulfur (S) and copper (Cu) is unusual.|
|What, exactly, causes the "rust-proof" properties? I don't know. Somebody knows, I assume, but it is not an obvious, easy-to-explain thing.|
|Weathering steels are great but have a severe disadvantage: They look rusty, very much so! Only rigid cultivation can enable a man to find truth in a lie, says Mark Twain, and as far as I'm concerned, the same principle applies to finding aesthetic beauty in rusted iron. Some artists and architects did take to the material but most people, I believe, find the buildings and whatever else Corten was used for, just plain ugly. Millennia of negative conditioning to the appearance of rusty swords, knives, and so on, are not erased all that easily.|
|There are also "real" problems with weathering steel - but as far as I'm concerned, they pale by comparison to the aesthetic one. Note that the Danish are famous for design. The architect of the building above, however, was obviously inspired by the aesthetics of the Corten steel used for the railroad in the foreground.|
|Machining your steel means shaping it by mechanically removing parts of it. Think of carving the Venus de Milo with a hammer and a chisel from steel. Actually, just think of drilling a hole; even you can do that. In essence, something sharp and hopefully made from tool steel, must cut, abrade or break off parts of the material being machined. This is obviously more difficult to do to a hard steel than to a soft steel.|
|Or is it? Try to drill a hole with precise dimensions through soft stuff like acrylic, cheddar cheese, or pudding - it ain't necessarily easy. For drilling brass, you actually blunt your drill bits. There is a simple message in this:|
|Of course, if you have all the time and money in the world, it is easy to machine your parts to perfection. Just go slow and take it easy. If money counts (and it sure does for most of us) things like cutting speed, dimension control, and life time of your cutting tools become extremely important.|
|I can't go into this here in any depth and thus
will only make one point: The shape of the bore chips or flakes coming off are
important. The nice long spirals shown on the right are decorative but not
good! You want the stuff to come of in little particles.
In essence, everything that makes your steel tougher and less susceptible to embrittlement is bad for machining. Of course, completely brittle materials are hard to machine, too. Try to drill a hole into glass! It can be done - but never with nice glass spirals flaking off.
|You are left with two options:
|Now I can make my point. Look at the next picture:|
|The more sulfur and the longer you cut, the better
So here is the exception to the iron rule that sulfur is always bad! You actually might add some sulfur (S) to machining steel or elements like lead (Pb), bismuth (Bi), selenium (Se) or tellurium (Te).
In essence, the sulfide particles in there (mostly manganese sulfides) fracture easily and to some extent even "lubricate" the whole shmeer, in particular if the temperature goes up a bit. That's why things improve with increasing cutting time in the figure above.
|Of course, your steel is not as good as it could be without the sulfur. The finished product, however, will be much cheaper. Make your choice.|
|Tool steels are needed for machining; see above. They must be very hard - after all you want them to cut regular steel on a lathe or with your power drill.|
|Essentially you use high-carbon steel; the most common mixture is 1 % C and 0.3 % Si, 0.3 % Mn. Properly quenched and tempered, at least the outer cutting part will be hard.|
|However, if the tool becomes hot - and that happens whenever you try to cut metal - you may loose the hardness because you "run the temper", i.e. anneal the martensite. This restricts you to low cutting speeds and plenty of cutting fluid, needed for permanent cooling.|
|Economically this is not so good. So you turn to high-speed steels with a composition of, e.g., 1 % C, 0.4 % Si, 0.4 % Mn, 4 % Cr, 6 % Mo, 6 % W, 2 % V, and 5 % Co. Obviously we now have a high-alloy steel. And equally obviously, just knowing the composition doesn't tell you all that much about how it "works".|
|First we nee to process that steel. We quench and
temper as usual. We have a lot of carbon so some cementite must be expected,
giving basic strength. Finely dispersed carbides forming with some of the
metals provide additional solid solution hardening. But that is not the point
The point is what happens if the tool gets hot? Say 500 oC - 600 oC (932oF - 1112oF), more than enough to give you a good quick burn if you touch it.
Then the Fe3C cementite particles dissolve. The carbon they release is snatched up by the alloy metals and forms tiny and very hard precipitates of metal carbides like Mo2C; W2C, and VC. This is called secondary hardening and makes the steel even stronger than it has been with the original cementite. The effect is shown in the figure below.
|Of course, you now have a rich field for optimizing - which elements and how much of each; and there are many kinds of high speed steel. The picture, for example, shows a sample with a composition quite different from the composition given above.|
|If you hear the word "spring", you
probably think of the kind of things shown below. You're a nerd. I think of
having (occasionally) sun again, birds singing,
But let's not get distracted. Let's think about making spring steel.
|A spring is something that you want to be able to
pull or squeeze a large amount, always being sure that it will turn right back
to its old dimension when you let go. The point is not to get deceived by the
spiral shape. It is the wound wire that needs to get longer if you pull. The
winding just ensures that the strain, the relative length change of your
spring, is far larger than that of the wire.
That means that even straight wires that you elongate or bend, in the hope that they will only deform elastically, are springs. Piano wire, for example.
|Now it is simple. Large purely elastic
deformations call for large yield strengths or very hard materials. But they
must not be brittle. The springs for the wheels of your car should be able to
take hard impacts anywhere on their surface, e.g. by stones kicked up, without
shattering. It's exactly like your sword. A nick or dent upon impact is
preferable to outright fracture.
We need a hard steel with some ductility left.
|There is plenty to choose from. Most popular
alloys include high-carbon steels (e.g. for piano or guitar strings),
martensitic low-carbon, chrome vanadium steel, or hard stainless steels.
Having all this variety is a good thing. Because we forgot something. Many springs are lustily moving up and down, to and fro, many, many times, That's why we have many of them, after all. Forget about piano wires or the spring in your ball point writer in this context - there you worry about creep! What we need to worry about for the busy springs is fatigue! Fracture that suddenly occurs after a certain number of vibrational cycles.
|Transformer steels, also called
electrical steel, needs to have very
special magnetic properties and in addition
should have a high specific electric resistance. Its uses are clear: It is put
inside the coil of electrical transformers or electromagnets. In a transformer,
it increases the magnetic field produced by some (AC) current running through a
coil by a huge factor (called the "permeability"
of the material), and "transports" that magnetic field to another
coil, where it induces a current - but typically at another voltage. That's how
a transformer transforms voltages from one value to another one.
In an electromagnet, typically found inside large generators, it does essentially the same thing, except that the other coil can rotate around the generator axis and is driven by the outside energy source. In an electrical motor we have the same thing once again - it is (as long as we are simple minded) just a generator driven in reverse.
|Not all that long ago every electric household
appliance - TV, radio, refrigerator, ... - contained a transformer with a core
of "electrical steel". Electrical steel is of prime importance.
Without it we wouldn't have affordable transformers / electromagnets /
generators, and without those we simply would have no electricity, and
therefore no culture and civilization where you and I would not be serves or
So transformer steel is a "special steel" that should be of interest to us. About 10 Mio tons are produced every year.
|So what are the "very special magnetic
properties" we require? Very simple: high permeability and a
hystereses loop that
is as soft as possible. If words like permeability, hystereses, or Tesla don't mean anything to you, I do not only feel
sorry for you but offer advice: Read up
Ferritic steel is always ferromagnetic with a rather large permeability, so how about hystereses behavior? Knowing the least little bit about ferromagnetic materials and their hysteres curves tells you that you should keep you material as perfect as possible for soft hystereses curves. So let's take pure and large-grained iron?
| Well - no! Materials that are as perfect as
possible also have the lowest possible electrical resistance - and we want that
as high as possible! Why? Because alternating magnetic fields induce currents
in conductors and these currents drain energy out of the system, heating the
material. That's why we make transformer cores from thin painted sheets of
steel that are piled on top of each other, with the paint layer providing for
electrical insulation. But we can't make these sheets too thin, and still loose
some energy due to the "eddy"
currents induced inside the material. We want to keep those eddy
currents small, and that calls for a high resistance.
We need to compromise - by alloying something suitable and by inducing anisotropy. Then we add a little of this and that (e.g. Mn, Al) to optimize whatever else we are after.
|To make a long story short: We alloy
mainly silicon (Si) at concentrations of up
to 6 % but mostly around 3 %. The steel becomes brittle and hard to work with
for the higher concentration. That increases the specific resistivity from
about 10 µWcm for pure iron to around
45 µWcm; nothing to be sneered at.
Then we remember that we need good magnetic properties mainly in the direction of the magnetic flux, but high resistivity in the direction perpendicular to that. If you don't remember that, you probably did not study Physics, Electrical Engineering, Materials Science or something similar for at least a few years. Well, don't feel (too) bad. Nobody is perfect after all, so just believe me. So we elongate grains in the right directions, making the material anisotropic. And so on.
What we might get in terms of magnetic properties is shown below. The red hystereses loop is not completely perfect but far better than the loop for some stainless steel or mot other steels.
|All you need to know about these curves is that the area they inclose is a direct measure of the losses, the energy that is drained from the incoming electrical energy and just heats up the material. That is a serious issue and motivates a lot of R&D work to improve things a lot more. We might, for example, go for a new steel that does not just convert 99 % of the incoming energy to output energy, but a whopping 99.1 %!|
|That's not worth the bother, you think? Let's see. The huge 370 MVA Transformer in your friendly neighborhood power plant takes off 1 % of the input power = 3.7 MVA = 3.7 MW (Megawatt). If it would only take off 0.9 %, you save 0.37 MW = 370 kW (kilowatt) of power. Your house, for comparison, runs nicely on just a few kW. With the energy saved you could power your whole neighbourhood.|
|Back to Overview of Major Steels|
|1. Classifying Steels|
|2. Some Common Steels|
|4. Scientific Steels|
General Remarks to Literature and Sources
Overview of Major Steels
9.1.1 Things are Complicated
Phosphorous Steel; 9.4.1 General Remarks
Alloying Elements in Detail
Ductile to Brittle Transition or Cold Shortness
Overview of Major Steels: Scientific Steels
Units of Length, Area, and Volume
Overview of Major Steels: 1. Classifying Steels
9.2.1 A Closer Look at Low Alloy Steels
Spring is in the Air
Overview of Major Steels
High Alloy steels; 9.3.1 Stainless Steel
8.3.1 Forming your Battle Line: Solid Solution and Precipitation Hardening.
Corrosion of Iron and Steel
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)