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The principal corrosion-resistant

applications of stainless steel
K. T. Rowland
Stainless Steel Development Association

IN ANY survey of stainless steel applications it is soon apparent instantaneously re-form to give continuous protection, provided
that in the vast majority of cases it is the corrosion resistance of a source of oxygen is available. In practice, a source of oxygen
the material which is the deciding factor in its selection. can mean atmospheric air or an oxidising solution such as nitric
Appearance, non-toxicity, retention of strength at high and low acid.
temperatures, and ease of fabrication are all important in varying
degrees, but the widespread applications of stainless steel—
a material which celebrated its first half-century only a few
Applications in an atmospheric environment
years ago—follow principally from its inherent 'stainless' It is generally accepted that the marine/industrial atmosphere of
properties which confer a remarkable degree of resistance to the United Kingdom can be exceptionally aggressive to building
attack in a wide variety of environments. materials. This is particularly the case in the large industrial
During the past 50 years a number of different stainless steels cities where high sulphur and chloride pollution occurs following
with varying compositions have been developed. These can be the large-scale combustion of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, stainless
classified in three main groups, namely martensitic, ferritic and steel has been used satisfactorily by the building industry for
austenitic. All stainless steels contain large amounts of chro- over 35 years for internal and external applications. Early uses
mium, while the austenitic steels have nickel as well as chromium related mainly to shop-front sections and decorative façades—
and sometimes additional elements such as molybdenum,
titanium and niobium.
The martensitic steels, which generally contain not less than
11% chromium, can be strengthened and hardened by quench-
ing and tempering. Like carbon steel, they are magnetic and
are used chiefly for cutlery and in the manufacture of tools and
steam turbine blading—applications which normally do not
demand the very highest degree of corrosion resistance.
Ferritic steels also contain chromium as the only important
alloying element. They, too, are magnetic but they are not
hardened by heat treatment. Their chromium contents com-
monly vary from 17-20% and their corrosion resistance, which
is moderate compared with that of the austenitic steels, is
adequate for applications such as motor-car trim, bumpers and
items of kitchenware.
The most important group of stainless steels is that having
an austenitic structure at ambient temperatures. The fully
austenitic structure is very soft and ductile and there is no
sharply defined yield point. Austenitic steels work harden
rapidly, to give high tensile strengths while maintaining good
elongation values. They are particularly amenable to cold
forming and this advantage, together with their excellent
corrosion resistance at ambient and elevated temperatures, and
ease of forming has led to their widespread usage in many
branches of industry.

Corrosion-resistant applications
When Brearley noted the phenomenon of non-rusting chro-
mium steels in 1913 he was recording for the first time an
example of the corrosion resistance which is a feature of all
types of stainless steel. This immunity to attack is due to the
chromium-rich oxide film which is always present on the
metal's surface. The film is transparent and extremely thin—
less than 130Å thick—but it is inert and very tightly adherent
to the metal. Most important of all, it is self-repairing, which
means if the surface is scratched or abraded the film will

ments in road transport, which have been made feasible by the

durability and strength of stainless steel, are the use of stainless
steel cladding for van and semi-trailer bodies and also for dry
freight and bulk-liquid containers. Austenitic type 301 steel is
always chosen in the United Kingdom for vehicle bodies which
are unpainted. The same material is also specified for the clad-
ding of dry freight containers, while construction of the bulk-
liquid type, which usually consist of an inner and outer tank
or framework, depends on the contents of the cargo and may
involve the use of type 304 chromium-nickel or the more
highly corrosion-resistant molybdenum-bearing type 316 steel.
Railway coach designers have also used stainless steel as a
cladding material although, in this context, most of the develop-
ment work has taken place in USA, Australia and on the Con-
tinent. The steel used is generally type 301 and the cladding,
which is fluted for additional stiffness, is left unpainted. British
Rail, which has shown close interest in stainless steel rolling
stock, has used the material in many other ways, ranging from
galley equipment to indicator boards, while London Transport
has exploited the full potentialities of the metal in the design and
manufacture of much of the station equipment and internal
rolling stock accessories on the new Victoria Line.
In aviation there is a long record of the use of stainless steel
in aero engines where the scaling resistance at elevated tempera-
tures is important. More recently, in sophisticated air frame
construction, such as that of the Concorde, stainless steel has
the canopy of the Strand entrance to the Savoy Hotel was one been adopted for many of the more highly stressed components.
of the first examples and was erected in the early thirties. The
more recent advent of high-rise buildings has given a con-
siderable impetus to the use of stainless steel curtain wall Applications where water is the dominating
systems and this has been accompanied by a parallel increase environment
in the specification of stainless steel for doors, entrances, grilles, All stainless steels show complete resistance to corrosion by
balustrading, windows and other examples of architectural supply waters in the neutral condition or with the slight degree
metalwork. The prestige sector of the building industry, of alkalinity normally considered desirable in boiler water
concerned with large office blocks, banks and hotels, has always systems. This has led to the use over many years of stainless
been a large user of stainless steel but, latterly, its application steel pump and valve components in marine propulsion and
has extended to local authority housing departments where the land-based turbo-generator plants. Recently, owing to the
saving in maintenance has been a deciding factor. Austenitic increase in the operating steam temperatures, austenitic stain-
stainless steels are necessary for all external applications in less steels have also been used for boiler tubes and other items
building where appearance is important, but in USA and in of heat exchanger plant. The most important development
many parts of the Continent it has been possible to use chro- involving stainless steel in contact with town or fresh water has
mium-nickel steels such as type 304.* In the United Kingdom, undoubtedly been the use of light-gauge tubing for plumbing
however, experience has shown that to retain a permanently and central heating systems. The tube is fabricated from aus-
bright surface the molybdenum-bearing type 316 steel should tenitic steel strip which is seam-welded. It can be cut, bent and
always be used. Where the chromium-nickel grades have been joined by all the usual techniques familiar to plumbers, and its
specified, as, for example, in certain makes of door furniture,
superficial rusting can occur in aggressive atmospheres, although
this can be prevented by a periodic wipe over with soapy water
and a soft cloth.
The road transport industry is another major user of stainless
steel and here the policy of planned obsolescence, which is
fundamental, at least to the private car sector, plays an import-
ant part in determining the type of steels employed. Most of
the manufacturers of mass-produced cars use ferritic stainless
steel—usually a 17% chromium steel, type 430—for body trim,
windscreen wiper arms, window surrounds and other items of
brightwork. Although this steel does not possess the same
degree of corrosion resistance as the austenitic steels, it has
been proved from 30 years' experience that it will give satis-
factory service beyond the life-span of the average car. Many
models in the medium-price and luxury range also feature
stainless steel components, usually of austenitic steel. The
highly-praised Rover 2000 uses more stainless steel than
Probably any other British car and its more prominent features
include wheel discs in austenitic type 301 steel and window
surrounds also in austenitic steel which serve as structural
members and form the top door frames. Two recent develop-

* Designations from BS 1449 : Part 4, Stainless and heat resist-

ing plate, sheet and strip.

Chemical engineering
The chemical and petrochemical industries are among the
growth sectors of the economy. The range of materials handled
and the diversity of the end-products are rapidly increasing.
In all but a few branches of chemical engineering, stainless steel
is regarded as one of the principal materials of construction.
The corrosion resistance and ductility of the austenitic steels
permit them to be used for agitators, distillation and evaporation
plant, filtration units, separators, mixers and many ancillary
items, such as tanks, pumps, valves, pipework and fasteners.
Stainless steel is also closely concerned in the transport of

use has been sanctioned by the British Waterworks Assn.

and local Water Boards. In just over three years more than 50
million feet of this tube have been supplied to the building
In sea-water, stainless steels have been used successfully for
many years for propellor shafts of small craft, propellors, and
even anchors. Considerable application is now being made of
molybdenum-bearing type 316 steel for yacht fittings and rig-

chemicals by road, rail and water. The first stainless steel road
tanker was built in 1931—the forerunner of thousands of similar
vehicles, some with capacities in excess of 6,000gal. The
carrying of chemicals by sea is a fairly recent development.
Compared with the giant supertankers used for oil, chemical
carriers are small but, nevertheless, several hundred tons of
stainless steel plate may be required for the cargo tanks of one
such vessel.
Information regarding the effect of various chemicals on
different stainless steels can be obtained from the Stainless
Steel Development Assn., or from companies within the
steel industry who have carried out extensive laboratory tests
on this subject. In general, it can be said that mineral acids
which are oxidising by nature, such as nitric acid, can be
handled safely in stainless steel at most concentrations and
temperatures. There is, in fact, extensive use of chromium-
nickel stainless steels for the plant used in the manufacture of
nitric acid, particularly by the ammonia oxidation process.
Phosphoric acid also has little effect on molybdenum-bearing

grades, except at boiling point, but two other important indus-

trial acids—hydrochloric and sulphuric—being strong reducing
agents will break down the protective oxide film although,
in the case of sulphuric acid, the molybdenum-bearing grades
can be used with dilute solutions at low temperatures.
All types of stainless steel can be used safely with many
organic acids while the more corrosion-resistant grades are
suitable for service with those which are considered aggressive
to a certain degree, such as acetic, citric, lactic, stearic and oleic
acids. Similarly, all stainless steels withstand alkalis, except for
hot, strong caustic soda and potash solutions. In the latter
instance the chromium-nickel types show the best resistance
and little benefit is gained from using the molybdenum-bearing

Other industrial applications

Apart from chemical engineering there are many other indus-
tries where corrosive substances have to be handled at one or
more stages during the production process. One of the earliest
to adopt stainless steel was the textile industry where the intro-
duction of the material for dyeing and bleaching plant solved
many of the problems which had confronted the industry for
centuries. The corrosive nature of many dyeing solutions
prohibited the use of metal plant until stainless steel became
available—the wooden equipment formerly employed tended
to absorb and retain colour from the dyes, and splinters were
liable to damage fabrics. Dyeing plant is usually fabricated
in type 316 molybdenum-bearing steel owing to high chloride
content of some dye liquors in service. The same grade of steel
is also required where bleaching is carried out in moist sulphur
dioxide, but, in neutral or alkaline hydrogen peroxide solutions,
chromium-nickel steels are satisfactory. In the production of
synthetic fibres there are many operations where a corrosion-
resistant material such as stainless steel is required. The process
is usually broken down into a number of recognised stages
involving polymerisation, filtration, mixing, heating and cooling,
and all these operations are now likely to be carried out in
stainless steel equipment.
Paper making is another example where highly corrosive

reactors now under construction for the CEGB. This type of

reactor operates at much higher temperatures than the earlier
Magnox units and, again, the 25/20 stainless steel has been used
for the fuel cans which contain ceramic uranium dioxide fuel
In agriculture, man's oldest industry, stainless steel is also
making a notable contribution and, indeed, has a key role in
the revolution in farming techniques. There is some use of
austenitic stainless steel in the production of herbicides,
insecticides and fertilisers. Nitrates and, to a lesser degree,
ammonium sulphate can be handled without difficulty, but for
the manufacture of superphosphates the molybdenum-bearing
grades should be specified only in certain cases where conditions
permit. The principal use of stainless steel in agriculture is now
for the application of the various agrochemicals that are avail-
able to the farmer. Tanks for crop sprayers, nozzles and pumps
are all made in austenitic stainless steel. The chromium-nickel
grades have proved satisfactory in service although the molyb-
denum-bearing steels are necessary for solutions based on
phosphoric acid.
Other examples where corrosive solutions are successfully
handled can be found in the pharmaceutical industry and in
photographic processing. All grades of austenitic stainless steel
are suitable for dealing with photographic developing solutions,
but molybdenum-bearing steel should be used in the storage of
conditions are encountered. These occur particularly in the acid fixing solutions. In food processing, where organic acids of
digester plant used for processing the wood pulp and also at mild concentrations are involved, the service conditions may not
the 'wet end' of the paper making machine. Many types of wood be particularly arduous and, in many instances, stainless steel
pulp are acidic by nature; sulphite pulp contains about 5% is adopted mainly because of its freedom from taint and hygienic
sulphur dioxide in solution and requires the use of austenitic appearance. Manual cleaning of plant has now been curtailed
stainless steels. Head boxes, suction boxes, strainers and much in many cases in order to reduce production costs and 'in place'
ancillary equipment, such as heat exchangers, pumps, valves cleaning using caustic soda solutions and various detergents
and pipework are all made in stainless steel. Recent develop- has been adopted. The need for a highly corrosion-resistant
ments include the use of stainless steel wire for dandy rolls and, material, such as stainless steel, has been reinforced and its
in the USA, successful experiments have been carried out in a application has become even more firmly established. Similar
number of mills with stainless steel Fourdrinier wire belting. reasons are responsible for the almost universal adoption of
There are few industries where conditions are more corrosive stainless steel plant in the brewing and soft drinks industries
than the gas industry. This is particularly the case in the hydro- and in dairy engineering.
carbon reforming plants that have recently been constructed by The world production of stainless steel is now in excess of
Area Boards in many parts of the country. Early gas reforming four million tons a year. British output is slightly over a quarter
plants abroad could only operate at comparatively low tem- of a million tons and, although the growth rate is less than in
peratures and efficiencies owing to the limitations of materials certain other countries, stainless steel is still regarded as the
used for the reformer tubes which, ideally, are subject to tem- most buoyant sector of the steel industry. This is reflected not
peratures in the region of 750-850°C. In Britain, the problems only in its profitability but in its exploitation of technical knowl-
associated with high-temperature scaling have been overcome edge and experience accumulated over a half a century. One of
by using a stainless steel containing 25% chromium and 20% the consequences has been a sustained research and develop-
nickel. The reformer tubes are centrifugally cast in approxi- ment programme leading to the introduction of new steels and
mately 20ft lengths with wall thicknesses of up to 1/2n. an improvement in the properties of many existing compositions
Corrosion at elevated temperatures can also be a problem in with the object of providing an even greater selection of corro-
nuclear engineering, particularly in the advanced gas-cooled sion-resistant steels to meet the demands of the technology of
the seventies.