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History of stainless steel

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History of steel FR UK 370x

Stainless Steel (also commonly referred to as “inox” or “rostfrei”) is now a very common feature of 21st Century living. However, this material is the most modern type of steels: basically its invention dates only to the early days of the 20th Century when it was discovered that a certain amount of Chromium as alloying element (minimum about 11%) added to ordinary steel made it shiny and highly resistant to tarnishing and rusting. This rust-resisting property translates into “corrosion resistance” which sets stainless steel apart from all other steels. Though the true “discovery” of stainless steel occurred in the 1900 to 1915 time period, several earlier contributions can be traced back, most noteworthy to:

- 1821: Frenchman Berthier found that iron alloyed with Chromium was acid resistant.

- 1872: English engineers Wood & Clark applied for a patent on a 30% Chromium iron alloy.

The actual discovery credit is now widely recognized to be shared between:

  • Frenchman Léon Guillet, who published in 1904 research on steels with close to current grades 410, 420 compositions and 1906 a detailed study of an alloy iron-nickel-chromium with the basic metallurgical structure of the 300 series stainless steel. These findings were completed by Frenchman Portevin who published in 1909 studies on an alloy close to current 430 stainless steel.
  • At the same time, Englishman Harry Brearley, Chief of the research lab of Thomas Firth & Sons in Sheffield conducted research which led to the first industrial cast of a stainless steel in 1912. Beardley called the new material “rustless steel”. Shortly thereafter, the manufacturer Ernest Stuart coined the name “stainless steel”.

Later on, W.Hatfield, successor of H.Brearley at Thomas Firth patented the 18% Chromium and 8% Ni austenitic stainless steel which became the most widespread used stainless steel known as grade 304. On a parallel time frame, Société d’Electrométallurgie d’Ugine has to be credited for the metallurgical research and industrialization of the ferritic grades such as 430, with 17% Chromium and no Nickel. Also, German metallurgists of Krupp Research Institute have to be recognized for their work in the 1915 to 1930 time frame.

The large development of industrial production of stainless steels is only fairly recent: It has exhibited a spectacular growth from 2 Million Tons in 1950 to 48 million Tons in 2017, with 3 modern metallurgical processes playing a key role in this development:

  • Successive developments since the early 1900 of Electro Metallurgy,
  • The Argon-Oxygen (AOD) refining convertor allowing to reach low Carbon content,
  • Since the late 1970’s, widespread use of the continuous casting technology.

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