Magic of Stainless Steel

When stainless steel was accidentally discovered by an English metallurgist, Harry Brearley, in August 1913, no one could have ever thought that it would quickly become the enabler of the modern progressive world. But it did.

In the early 20th century, researchers around the world worked to develop new, stainless, and acid resistant steels, especially for the chemical industry. At that time, already known nickel and chromium steels, with increased demands from the chemical industry, were prone to corrosion and brittleness.

Strauss and Maurer, the fathers of stainless steel, reduced the carbon content to below one percent. They combined chromium and nickel as alloying elements and developed a suitable method for heat treatment to improve corrosion resistance and strength of the steel. Thus began the worldwide success of stainless steels.

New production methods for growing demand

The rapid success of the stainless steel market in 1920s can be credited to the development of an economic process to produce and process stainless steels. Earlier, stainless steels were produced in oil-fired, tilting pans. The invention of induction melting furnaces later simplified the process.

Early 60s saw the introduction of a melting technique with optional vacuum (VOD) or argon (AOD). The new production technique lowered the cost of production and at the same time extended the range of properties sustainably. The 80s witnessed another quality and commercial milestone for stainless steel making with the introduction of the continuous casting method, the conditions for a near net shape casting. Computer-aided control engineering drove the reproducibility of stainless steel products, thus advancing towards new application areas.

Processing industry as an engine of material development

The study for materials resistant to overheated gases and vapours in the chemical industry was the driving force behind the invention of stainless steel. Increasingly, weldability and formability of stainless steel gained importance.

Growing system sizes in the chemical industry demanded boilers, columns, heat exchangers, centrifuges, transport and storage tanks, valves and pumps to come up in acid-and heat-resistant stainless steels in the market.

This application range today is almost limitless; from production and processing of acids, hydrogenation of coal or tar, distillation of liquid mixtures, textile fiber production, petrochemicals, mineral recovery, solid-liquid separation in wastewater treatment plants, and food and beverage industry.

Timeless aesthetics, sustainable technology in construction

Only a few years after its invention, stainless steel inspired architects and planners as a building material. Being weather resistant, strong, and durable, stainless steel makes itself through long life with minimum maintenance costs. It forms an essential part of a wide array of architecture ranging from structurals, corrosion-resistant concrete and masonry reinforcement, protective facades, conventional roof covers, green roofs, lightning protection, ceilings or floors, swimming pools, elevators, escalators, doors or gates, balustrades, car parks, hotels, stadiums, train stations, airports, etc.

In 1929, the Chrysler Building in New York adorned 4,500 large-sized stainless steel shingles. Later, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Atomium in Brussels, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or the new landmark of New York, the One World Trade Center, all employed stainless steel showcasing its remarkable aesthetics. The tallest buildings of the past 100 years carried a distinctive stainless steel touch. Today, stainless steel is a synonym for creative expression and sustainability.

Robust all-rounder for automotive and railways

The automotive and railway industries quickly recognized the potential of stainless steel. In 1936, Ford produced 6 prototypes using stainless steel bodies in Detroit. Since the 1950s, exhaust parts are made of stainless steel. In the late 1960s, Porsche's legendary 911 came in a stainless steel variant, which is showcased in the German Museum in Munich. In 1934, Edward G. Budd, Philadelphia, built the famous, only 104-tonne Pioneer Zephyr (previously known as Burlington Zephyr) with diesel locomotive and three carriages. Today, latest high quality automotive and railway components are manufactured entirely in stainless steel.

In systems for fuel injection, particulate filtration or gas treatment of high-performance material has long been indispensable - stainless steel is the best suited metal for the job. The precise and light-weight stainless steel components reduce material costs, vehicle weight, and fuel consumption.

For rail vehicles of the latest generation, the concept of innovative light-weight construction became more relevant than ever. Given its strength at low thickness and crash and fire resistance, stainless steel today has become the leading material for all kinds of sophisticated and economic body structures.

Sterility of medicine, beverage and food industries

The decisive factor for stainless steel applications in medical industry was its resistance to high temperatures and aggressive chemicals, withstanding sterilization and disinfection problems. In 1926, the first body implants were developed in stainless steel. Even today, artificial knee joints of stainless steel meet the current state of research.

The strict hygiene regulations for surgical instruments and surgical equipment apply analogously in the food and beverage industry. Here also, stainless steel ensures a smooth, aseptic, easy to clean, and reliably inert surface. In the dairy and meat industry, stainless steel makes for hygienic engineering and economic production processes. Kitchens, dairies, breweries, wineries and juice manufacturers have been using stainless steel for decades. Its extraordinary chemical and thermal stability - even under extreme temperature fluctuations allows for an extensive use of stainless steel in manufacturing, storage, and transport of acidic products.

Material for new lifestyle

In 1921, the first stainless steel cutlery came into being. Since then, more and more everyday objects in stainless steel followed. In the 1950s, a variety of legendary commodities were designed in stainless steel by the pioneer of industrial design, Wilhelm Wagenfeld. The organic shape of industrially produced stainless steel cutlery, bowls, egg cups, salt and pepper shakers, butter dishes, and vases brought him worldwide recognition.

The year 1956 revolutionized beard trimming with the invention of the first stainless steel razor blades from Wilkinson Sword. Soon, stainless steel assumed a leading role as a material for cookware, fittings, sanitary ware, radiators, appliances and accessories for the kitchen and bathroom. Its timeless aesthetics, durability, and easy-care functionality made it the wonder of modern life.

High performance for high-tech industries

In the energy industry, clean room technology, environmental technology, and telecommunications and electronics, the resistance of stainless steel against corrosion and a variety of stress regularly set new standards. Stainless steel is a prime choice for crucial applications in power plants like in heat exchangers or flue gas filters for solar panels or biogas plants. In telecommunications, paper-thin stainless steel foils and precision strips, coated with nickel and gold in the nanometer range, are constantly used.

Stainless steel is often confused with mild steel or carbon steel. While carbon steel is a less flexible alloy of steel, stainless steel is an alloy of iron and has minimum 10.5% Chromium as a chief component.

The increased resistance to corrosion in stainless steel is due to the naturally occurring chromium-rich oxide film formed on its surface. Although extremely thin, this inert film is adherent to the metal and is extremely protective in a wide range of corrosive media. The film is rapidly self repairing, in the presence of oxygen, if damaged by any external force.

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Metals are extracted from their natural and most stable states as ores. This consumes a great amount of energy and effort. All these efforts adversely affect our environment in one way or another. Therefore, the more we recycle the scrap/end-of-life metals, the better off we will be.

Recycling of Stainless Steel Scrap

Did you know that 90% of stainless steel is recycled?

Stainless steel’s long service life, 100% recyclability, and its raw materials make it an excellent environmental performer.

Stainless steel objects rarely become waste at the end of their useful life. Recycled stainless steel objects are systematically separated and recovered to go back into the production process through recycling. Stainless steel is actively recycled on a large scale around the world by recyclers who collect and process scrap (recycled stainless steel) for re-melting all around the world.

Stainless steel contains valuable raw materials like chromium and nickel which makes recycling economically viable.

Scrap collection

The use of stainless steel scrap is fundamental to the steel-making process. There are two types of scrap - reclaimed scrap (old scrap) and industrial scrap (new scrap). Reclaimed scrap includes industrial equipment, tanks, washing machines and refrigerators that have reached the end of their service life. Industrial scrap includes industrial returns or production off-cuts from manufacturing by industrial engineering and fabrication sources.

Today, stainless steel is made up of approximately 60% recycled content including:

  • 25% reclaimed scrap
  • 35% industrial scrap
  • 40% new raw materials

The useful service life of stainless steel products is long. So, the availability of scrap is dependent on levels of production from decades ago. With an average content of 25% of old scrap, stainless steel is close to the theoretical maximum content of material from end-of-life products.

Recycling the scrap

Specialised expertise and sophisticated technology is needed in recycling to separate and prepare each type of alloy for re-melting. A recycling processor feeds the scrap into a large shredder to break it into smaller pieces. It is then chemically analysed and stored by type. This process may include ‘blending’ the scrap into chrome steels, nickel alloys, and other types of stainless steels. After blending into piles for specific customer requirements, the scrap is then loaded into containers for export to overseas mills.

The global market for scrap

Virtually, all Australian stainless steel scrap goes overseas. There’s a small market for stainless steel scrap in Australia for use in the foundries business. Foundries often use profile off-cut or plate material scrap products.

Majority of stainless steel scrap in Australia is exported in a year to stainless steel mills in countries including China, South Korea, Taiwan, India, and Japan.

For mills, scrap is important because recycled stainless steel contains valuable raw elements including chromium, nickel, and molybdenum that are gathered, processed, and reused in the production process. The more scrap used in furnaces by mills, the less raw materials are required in the production process.

Stainless steel mills

Scrap along with other raw materials, ferro-chromium (chrome/iron), ferro-molybdenum (molybdenum/iron), and nickel are blended into an electric furnace.

After melting, impurities are removed, the molten metal is refined and the chemistry is analysed to determine what final adjustments are necessary for the specific type of stainless steel being produced.

The molten stainless steel is then cast into slabs or billets before production of plate, sheet, coil, wire, and other forms for use by industrial manufacturers.

The stainless returns to you

Industrial manufacturers produce stainless steel items that you use everyday including cutlery, pots and pans, kitchen sinks, and many architectural, industrial and other components. At each stage of the production process, stainless steel retains its basic properties and utility value. Unlike many industrial and engineering materials, stainless steel may be returned to its original quality in the supply chain without any degradation.

You can be assured that even after its long service life, your environmentally-efficient stainless steel will always return to you bright, shining and new as ever!

Speaking strictly in economic terms, cost is always associated with Value of Money. The cheapest alternative may not always be the best option to choose when the entire life of the product is taken into account. Therefore, life cycle costing becomes an important key.

Life Cycle Cost (LCC) analysis is a means of quantifying the choice of materials for a product or construction, with the aim of selection of the most economic alternative. Stainless steel normally comes with an initially higher cost of material, but its longer life due to excellent wear and corrosion resistance, low requirement of maintenance, and recyclability compensate for the higher initial cost and make it an environment friendly material or ‘Green Material’.

Why is LCC important?

With the advent of new technology in every stream of engineering and the fast pace of the infrastructural and industrial progress, engineers are faced with daunting challenges in designing and constructing robust structures and machineries that are long lasting and low in maintenance. It is therefore necessary that engineers take the total life cycle costing for their designed structures into account.

Corrosion is the major culprit for loss of value and reduction in useful life of any structure. It causes plant shut downs, waste of valuable resources, loss or contamination of products, reduction in efficiency and costly maintenance. Awareness with respect to corrosion is very less in our country. A NACE International study estimates the global cost of corrosion to be USD 2.5 trillion, equivalent to roughly 3.4% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Stainless steel, by virtue of its special chemical composition, is one such value added material for construction that offers long lasting and low maintenance structures. A good understanding of life cycle costing (LCC) is important to make informed choices and create values that will serve for years to come.

How LCC is calculated?

Corrosion is the major culprit for loss of value and reduction in useful life of any structure. Material costs are assessed with their implications. For example, initial outlay, maintenance and its frequency, downtime effects, production losses, repair, replacement, and other operationally related costs such as manpower and energy consumption.

LCC = Acquisition Cost + Fabrication and Installation Cost + Maintenance Costs (periodic) + Replacement Costs (periodic) + Cost of Lost Production (periodic) - Residual (Scrap) Value.

Chrysler Building


Empire State Building


Petronas Twin Towers


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Take up an interesting course, specifically designed to enhance knowledge of stainless steel, its properties, performance and uses.

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