The many unique benefits of stainless steel make it a powerful candidate in materials selection. Engineers, specifiers, and designers often underestimate or overlook these values because of what is viewed as the higher initial cost of stainless steel. However, over the total life of a project, stainless is often the best value option.
What is Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel is essentially low-carbon steel that contains chromium at 10% or more by weight. It is the addition of chromium that gives the steel its unique stainless, corrosion-resisting properties. The chromium content of the steel allows the formation of a tough, adherent, invisible, corrosion-resisting chromium oxide film on the steel surface. If damaged mechanically or chemically, this film is self-healing, provided that oxygen, even in very small amounts, is present. The corrosion resistance and other useful properties of the steel are enhanced by increased chromium content and the addition of other elements such as molybdenum, nickel, and nitrogen. There are more than 60 grades of stainless steel. However, the entire group can be divided into four classes. Each is identified by the alloying elements which affect their microstructure and for which each is named.
Stainless Steel Grades and Applications
400 Series Martensitic – Typical grade: 410 Straight chromium (12 – 18%); magnetic and can be hardened by heat treatment. Typical use: Fasteners, pump shafts.
400 Series Ferritic – Typical grade: 430 Straight chromium (12 – 18%); low carbon, magnetic, but not heat treatable. Typical use: Appliance trim, cooking utensils.
300 Series Austenitic – Typical grade: 304 Chromium (17 – 25%), Nickel (8 – 25%); nonmagnetic, not heat treatable. Can develop high strength by cold working. Additions of molybdenum (up to 7%) can increase the corrosion resistance. Typical use: Food equipment, chemical equipment, architectural applications.
Precipitation Hardening – Typical grade: 17-4 Chromium (12 – 28%), Nickel (4 – 7%); martensitic or austenitic. Develop strength by precipitation harden reaction during heat treatment. Typical use: valves, gears, petrochemical equipment.
The Many Benefits of Stainless Steel
Corrosion Resistance – Chromium is the alloying element that imparts to Stainless Steel their corrosion-resistant qualities. Lower alloyed grades resist corrosion in atmospheric and pure water environments; high-alloyed grades can resist corrosion in most acids, alkaline solutions, and chlorine bearing environments making their properties useful in process plants.
Fire and Heat Resistance – Special high chromium and nickel-alloyed grades resist scaling and retain high strength at high temperatures. Stainless Steel is used extensively in heat exchangers, super-heaters, boilers, feedwater heaters, valves, and mainstream lines as well as aircraft and aerospace applications. Stainless steel has a high melting point, which means it can withstand elevated temperatures without melting or deforming. (The specific melting point depends on the alloy composition)
Hygiene – Stainless steel tubing has a smooth, non-porous surface that is easy to clean and maintain. It is commonly used in critical applications such as food and beverage processing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, biotechnology, medical devices, and cleanroom environments. Its corrosion resistance further enhances its longevity, making it an essential component in industries where hygiene, precision, and sterility are non-negotiable.
Aesthetic Appearance – The bright easily maintained surface of stainless steel provides a modern and attractive appearance. The availability of various finishes, including brushed, polished, and satin, provides designers with versatility to achieve specific aesthetic effects, ensuring stainless steel tubing’s enduring appeal in a wide range of applications.
Strength-to-Weight Advantage – The work-hardening property of austenitic grades results in a significant strengthening of the material from cold-working alone, and the high strength duplex grades, allow reduced material thickness over conventional grades yielding considerable cost savings. The high strength of stainless steel tubing allows engineers and designers to create robust and durable structures and components while minimizing overall weight.
Ease of Fabrication – Stainless steel has excellent formability and machinability. Its versatility allows for various fabrication methods, including cutting, welding, bending, and forming, making it a preferred material in many industries for creating a wide range of products and structures. It is indispensable in medical applications, where precision, hygiene, and longevity are paramount.
Impact Resistance – The austenitic microstructure of the 300 series provides high toughness at elevated temperatures ranging far below freezing, making these steels particularly suited to cryogenic applications. Thicker-walled tubing tends to exhibit greater resistance to impact, especially when designed to efficiently distribute stress. This is important for applications where the material needs to withstand forces and shocks without failing or deforming, ensuring the overall reliability and durability of the system.
Long-Term Value – In considering total cost, it is appropriate to consider material and production cost AND the life cycle cost. When the total life cycle costs are considered, stainless is often the least expensive material option. The cost-saving benefit of a maintenance-free product having a long life expectancy. It has a longer lifespan compared to carbon steel, which can corrode and degrade more rapidly under certain conditions.
100% Recyclable – Over 50% of new stainless comes from old remelted stainless steel scrap, thereby completing the full life cycle. Recycling stainless steel reduces the demand for new materials, conserves energy and minimizes environmental impacts of mining and production. Because stainless steel is non-corrosive and durable, it can be recycled repeatedly without losing its inherent properties.