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Iron Residue / Contamination

on Stainless steel Surfaces

Iron residue on the surfaces of Stainless steel parts (either cast or wrought)
has been a recurring problem for many years probably since Stainless steels
were first developed. Here we will discuss the possible sources of the residue,
the consequences of it being present, methods for detecting it, and methods
for removing it.
First, a word about what iron residue is and what it is not. The residue is free
(unAlloyed) iron on the surface. Free iron should not be confused with
Alloyed iron which is a major component of the Stainless steel, or with ferrite
which is a specific type of crystalline structure and a normal component of
Stainless steel, especially cast Stainless steel.
Sources of Free Iron
No list can possibly include all the potential sources of free iron
contamination. Please consider the following as examples of sources which
may or may not play a part in a particular situation.
Any steel or iron item which comes in contact with the Stainless steel is a
potential source of contamination. This includes chains, slings, metal
shipping containers, work benches, tools (hammers, wrenches, pliers, etc.),
machine tools (lathes, mills, machining centers, jaws of chucks, etc.), fork lift
trucks, and steel shot or grit used to remove scale, etc.
Iron may also be transferred to Stainless steel surfaces from materials which
were previously used on steel or iron parts. This includes blasting, grinding,
and polishing abrasives; the iron parts they were previously used on may be
the containers or the systems used to handle the abrasives, such as blasting
cabinets. Of course, iron or steel shot or grit used to remove scale or other
materials from the Stainless steel items would leave residue on the surface.
One of the most difficult sources of iron to avoid is the atmosphere itself.
Industrial areas have a surprising amount of iron in the air. This iron falls
out onto exposed items, including previously cleaned Stainless steel parts.
Also, water which is used to clean the surfaces may itself contain iron
which will be deposited onto the surfaces thought to be clean. Note that water
may also contain other chemicals which may leave rust-colored deposits
which may be mistaken for indications of the presence of free iron.
As mentioned above, there are so many possible sources of iron
contamination that no list of potential sources of iron residue can be

complete. Those listed here should be considered examples of the types of

sources which should be considered when trying to avoid the contamination.
Consequences of Free Iron Contamination
Again, no one can list all the possible consequences of iron contamination.
However, there are some broad categories:
Appearance Free, unAlloyed iron on the surface of any item will oxidize
(rust) given the appropriate conditions (warmth, moisture, and oxygen). The
reddish brown deposits are easily recognized. People around the world see
rust as a deterioration of metal items and work to avoid it where possible.
Thus, even the appearance of rust is taken as objectionable.
Material Identification Because rust is associated with iron or steel, items
which appear rusty are often assumed to be iron or steel. Thus when Stainless
steel parts (or brass parts or nickel parts or ...) are covered with rust, it is
often assumed that they are not Stainless steel (or brass or nickel or ...). Since
the buyer of the parts paid for and was expecting Stainless steel (or brass or
nickel or ...), his/her first reaction is usually Ive been cheated!
Process Contamination Stainless steels are often used to handle pure
substances such as chemicals, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. Even small
amounts of iron in these materials can change their color or behavior or both
and possibly render them unfit for use.
Some things that free iron does not do is to cause galvanic corrosion or
pitting corrosion, etc. It MAY be possible that the iron could accelerate some
forms of corrosion if there is enough present. For example, iron accelerates
the general corrosion rate in nitric acid as demonstrated in the Huey test.
Detecting Free Iron
Free iron cannot be seen on the surfaces of contaminated parts. Therefor, it
must be converted into a visible form. There are at least the following three
1. Moisten the surface, either by spraying with clean water or by immersing
the part in clean water. The water accelerates the reaction of the iron with
oxygen to form iron oxide (rust) which is readily visible.
Sometimes, just allowing the part to sit undisturbed for a period of time,
especially in a humid environment will result in the conversion of iron to iron
oxide. However, this can take several days or weeks.

It is important that the water is clean. If it contains iron (from iron plumbing)
or certain other chemicals, it will give a false indication of iron on the part
2. Spray the surface with a solution of copper sulfate in water. If free iron is
present, a copper film will form. In this test, the chemical reaction is:
Fe + CuSO4 = FeSO4 + Cu
The copper film is immediately visible.
3. Use the ferroxyl test. Spray the surface with a solution of potassium
ferricyanide. If free iron is present, a blue color will appear. This test is
extremely sensitive and often gives false positive results, that is, it gives an
indication of iron being present when it really is not. The ferroxyl solution
must be made fresh each day.
Both the copper sulfate and the ferroxyl tests are described in ASTM A380.
Removing Free Iron Contamination from Stainless Steel
One of the first points which should be made regarding the removal of
iron residue is that mechanical methods such as abrasive blasting have
not been successful. The abrasive merely moves the iron around on the
surface; it does not remove it. The only mechanical methods which are
successful are those which remove the surface, such as machining or
The only known methods for removing iron from the surfaces which are
not machined are chemical and electro-chemical methods. And not all
chemical methods are successful nitric acid alone does not do the job.
The known useable chemical methods include:
1. Oxidation This is most readily accomplished by heating the part in
air to normal heat treating temperatures. The iron is converted to iron
oxide which can then be removed by abrasive blasting. This method is
acceptable for unmachined sand castings since the scaling which occurs
is not detrimental. The sand blasting abrasive must be free of iron
contamination or the part will be re-contaminated.
However, heat treating in air is not suitable for parts with machined
surfaces and often not for investment castings. Heat treating in vacuum
or in protective atmospheres is also not suitable since the iron is not

2. Pickling This is probably the most commonly used method. Use a

solution of nitric and hydrofluoric acids in water. We use ASTM A380,
solution D. The formula is specified in A380 as 6 - 25% HNO3 and 8% HF in water at 70 -140 F (21 - 60 C) for about 30 minutes. This is a
strong cleaning solution and may etch highly finished surfaces.
Pickling should not be confused with passivating. Stainless steel selfpassivates on exposure to air no special passivation treatment is
required. (However, it may be that using a passivating treatment such
as nitric acid, also described in ASTM A380, may accelerate the
formation of the passive film or form a thicker passive film.)
3. Chemical Cleaning Some citrus-based cleaners have been shown to
remove free iron contamination. However, there are some concerns about
the stability of these cleaners since they may be subject to bacteria
4. Electropolishing Like machining and grinding, this process removes
the surface of the part, including any embedded iron.
Contamination of Stainless steel surfaces with free iron is common. It
can be avoided only with very careful handling. The presence of free iron
on the surfaces of interest can be detected by a variety of tests, including
the copper sulfate and ferroxyl tests. Iron contamination can be removed
by certain chemical or electro!chemical methods; abrasive blasting alone
is not effective.