News in History: Discovery of Stainless Steel

September 2017

Stainless steel alloys have revolutionized metallurgy and the world, but how did stainless steel come to be? And why is it so revolutionary?

In the year 1912, an English scientist by the name of Harry Brearley was experimenting with different iron alloys. With war on the horizon, Brearley was trying to create an alloy that could better resist corrosion, for use in rifle barrels. While experimenting, Brearley found that the addition of greater than 12% chromium led to an iron alloy with superior resistance to oxidation and corrosion. Brearley noted that the resulting alloy “resisted attack even after months of exposure to acid fumes” (P.C.M.I. Short Course pg. 1), and coined the term “stainless steel”. The alloy Brearley created would come to be known as stainless steel 420, and would become popular for the commercial production of cutlery.

At approximately the same time as Brearley was studying chromium infused iron alloys, Benno Strauss and Edward Maurer were researching the properties of chromium-nickel iron alloys. Strauss and Edward’s work began to plateau, as their iron alloys were highly corrosion resistant, but were unworkable due to carbide precipitation that led to cracking. However, Maurer discovered an annealing treatment involving a water quenching, which forced the carbide into solution and allowed the alloy to become workable. The alloy that Maurer and Strauss created would come to be known as V2A stainless steel, and would become popular for use in the commercial production of nitric acid and synthetic ammonia.

The superior corrosive resistance of stainless steel has made its study one of the largest fields of metallurgy, and has revolutionized nearly all forms of industry. In fact, stainless steel alloys have become the most researched alloy set in the entire world, due to their versatility, price, and the various mechanical properties they can achieve with varying alloy composition.

Reference:
Allen, D. M., & Krishnamurti, G. (1990). P.C.M.I. Short Course- The Photochemical Machining

Stainless Steel. North Attleboro, MA: Photochemical Machining Institute.

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