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In order to understand the difference between steel and metal, we first need to understand iron. Iron is a naturally occurring element, (like other metals such as bronze and copper), and our ancestors originally extracted it from a handful of meteorites that had crashed into the earth.
It was thousands of years before our ancestors discovered a stockpile of ore (iron mixed with stones and metals) hiding beneath the earth’s surface – and yet another 700 years before they discovered the magic process of extracting iron from the ore.
It was this ‘smelting’ process that would change the course of history.
In the iron smelting process, where iron ore is heated beyond its melting point in special conditions, a chemical reaction takes place where the iron absorbs carbon (in a process called ‘alloying’).
When the iron absorbs too little carbon (usually less than 0.08%), the result is a soft, ductile and fibrous material – wrought iron. But when we add too much carbon to the iron (from 2-4%), it becomes hard and brittle – what’s known as cast iron.
The magic of steel is in a subtle change to this alloying process – a very specific carbon content and a unique way of alloying.
The first magic happened in India, around 400 BC when people added the perfect amount of carbon to iron (between 0.5% and 1.5%). This minute change was so small, but it changed everything – steel was born.
This ‘magic’ process and its wondrous by-product quickly spread throughout the world, undergoing many tweaks and adjustments to the production process over thousands of years to what we know today – one of the most common man-made materials in the world, with more than 1.6 billion tonnes produced annually.
And while metals are the building blocks of steel, they are also used independently, for their own applications that require their unique properties.
Stronger, tougher and more versatile than most metals – and in abundant supply – steel has transformed the world.
The creation of structures like skyscrapers, trucks, cars, as well as furniture and many household products would not be possible without steel.
The alloying process is what makes steel so unique. Small changes to alloying mixes, especially the carbon content, can affect micro-structures and, therefore, mechanical properties. This changes the characteristics of the steel and it’s suitability for different applications.
For example, if you require very strong steel that is weldable, then low carbon steel, alloyed with manganese or nickel, will be the best option as it has high strength steel and good weldability. High carbon steel, however, is too brittle for welding.
There are thousands of types of steel, each manufactured to suit many types of applications, but these generally fall into four broad categories: carbon steel, tool steel, stainless steel and mild steel.
While steel may be the superior choice of material for many applications, metals – like copper, bronze, brass and aluminium – are ductile and malleable, making them a great material of choice for a wide range of applications.
Used from jewellery making through to engineering, electrical and construction, metals have high lustre and conductivity. And while they are generally more expensive than steel, they can be far easier to work with for many applications.
Our comprehensive range of steel products suits commercial builders through to the everyday hobbyist. From mild steel through to stainless steel and key steel, we offer a variety of sizes, shapes, grades and coatings.