This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn.
stainless steel, any one of a family of alloy steels usually containing 10 to 30 percent chromium. In conjunction with low carbon content, chromium imparts remarkable resistance to corrosion and heat. Other elements, such as nickel, molybdenum, titanium, aluminum, niobium, copper, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, or selenium, may be added to increase corrosion resistance to specific environments, enhance oxidation resistance, and impart special characteristics.
Most stainless steels are first melted in electric-arc or basic oxygen furnaces and subsequently refined in another steelmaking vessel, mainly to lower the carbon content. In the argon-oxygen decarburization process, a mixture of oxygen and argon gas is injected into the liquid steel. By varying the ratio of oxygen and argon, it is possible to remove carbon to controlled levels by oxidizing it to carbon monoxide without also oxidizing and losing expensive chromium. Thus, cheaper raw materials, such as high-carbon ferrochromium, may be used in the initial melting operation.
There are more than 100 grades of stainless steel. The majority are classified into five major groups in the family of stainless steels: austenitic, ferritic, martensitic, duplex, and precipitation-hardening. Austenitic steels, which contain 16 to 26 percent chromium and up to 35 percent nickel, usually have the highest corrosion resistance. They are not hardenable by heat treatment and are nonmagnetic. The most common type is the 18/8, or 304, grade, which contains 18 percent chromium and 8 percent nickel. Typical applications include aircraft and the dairy and food-processing industries. Standard ferritic steels contain 10.5 to 27 percent chromium and are nickel-free; because of their low carbon content (less than 0.2 percent), they are not hardenable by heat treatment and have less critical anticorrosion applications, such as architectural and auto trim. Martensitic steels typically contain 11.5 to 18 percent chromium and up to 1.2 percent carbon with nickel sometimes added. They are hardenable by heat treatment, have modest corrosion resistance, and are employed in cutlery, surgical instruments, wrenches, and turbines. Duplex stainless steels are a combination of austenitic and ferritic stainless steels in equal amounts; they contain 21 to 27 percent chromium, 1.35 to 8 percent nickel, 0.05 to 3 percent copper, and 0.05 to 5 percent molybdenum. Duplex stainless steels are stronger and more resistant to corrosion than austenitic and ferritic stainless steels, which makes them useful in storage-tank construction, chemical processing, and containers for transporting chemicals. Precipitation-hardening stainless steel is characterized by its strength, which stems from the addition of aluminum, copper, and niobium to the alloy in amounts less than 0.5 percent of the alloy’s total mass. It is comparable to austenitic stainless steel with respect to its corrosion resistance, and it contains 15 to 17.5 percent chromium, 3 to 5 percent nickel, and 3 to 5 percent copper. Precipitation-hardening stainless steel is used in the construction of long shafts.