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Differences Between Aluminum and Stainless Steel

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At Clinton, we extol the virtues of both aluminum and stainless steel on a daily basis. These two materials, far from being rivals, have together proven to be revolutionary metals with a wide range of alloys and grades that fit just about any application. But there comes a time when a manufacturer or designer must choose between these metals and we’re there to help.

Both aluminum and stainless steel have a number of distinct advantages and disadvantages. And while the latest advances in high-performance alloys have allowed stainless steel and aluminum to frequently approximate the most beneficiary properties of the other, these specialty grades can often be expensive.

At Clinton Aluminum, we’re here to supply our inventory list to our clients which show them the many possible options available to make sure that they have the right material for the job at all times.

Aluminum And Stainless Steel Dramatically Transformed Nearly Every Industry

Before looking at their differences, it’s important to note that aluminum and stainless steel have had a huge collective impact on industry and society over the past century. Despite being the third most abundant element after oxygen and silicon and the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, aluminum was not industrialized until the early 20th century because it is so chemically reactive and is almost impossible to find in its native form. Once metallurgists learned how to stably produce aluminum alloys in a cost-efficient manner, the metal quickly made its way into architectural, aerospace, and transportation applications.

Steel, on the other hand, has been around for centuries. However, the steel-chromium alloy combination that would become known as stainless steel wasn’t developed until the late 1800’s and wasn’t commercialized until the 1920’s. Together, the two metals would quickly catch on and help usher in the modern design aesthetic known as Art Deco and make many of the technological advancements of the early 20th century possible.

What Are The Major Differences Between Aluminum And Stainless Steel?

One of the major differences between aluminum and stainless steel is the strength of the materials. In most cases, steel is stronger than aluminum. However, this is offset by the fact that aluminum is much lighter (as much as a third of the weight of stainless steel) and therefore has a much greater strength to weight ratio. This is the reason why aircraft and spacecraft are primarily made from aluminum. The large windows that adorn most modern skyscrapers are frequently held in place by aluminum as well.

Stainless steel gets its name from its ability to withstand many forms of corrosion. This natural resistance means that stainless steel is the go-to material for a number of industries where anti-corrosion is a necessity, such as the food and beverage industry. At the same time, aluminum, thanks to its passivation layer, also has a strong resistance to corrosion and oxidation. However, in certain extreme environments, many aluminum alloys will corrode quickly, in particular when exposed to acidic or basic conditions, such as seawater. Specialty alloys for both metals can increase the natural resistance as well.

When it comes to the ability to conduct heat, aluminum is acknowledged to be much better in this area. That’s why aluminum is often used in radiators and air conditioners, or as a cooling material in electronic and mobile devices. On the other hand, stainless steel has a greater resistance to high temperatures. Most aluminum is likely to become soft beginning at around 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another advantage of aluminum is how workable it can be. Because it is relatively soft, it’s easier to machine and form into the complicated shapes that are often necessary for modern industrial applications. Stainless steel, while being more resistant to abrasion and more durable, is harder to shape. While in some circumstances this hardness can be an advantage, it often makes it less desirable as a material.

Conversely, stainless steel is much easier to weld than aluminum. With the latter, certain alloys can be welded effectively, but for many other alloys, welding is not really an option, at least not cheaply.

We mentioned already that aluminum shows excellent heat conductivity. This is also true of electrical conductivity, the reason why the majority of the nation’s power lines are made of aluminum (in addition to the metal’s light weight and excellent corrosion resistance). Stainless steel is not a good choice when it comes to electrical conductivity.

An important consideration in the food and beverage industry is that stainless steel rarely reacts to foods. Aluminum, on the other hand, can affect the color and taste of foods and therefore is less desirable in many instances (this obviously does not apply to the many beverages that rely on aluminum cans, one of the biggest uses of aluminum worldwide).

Which Industries Prefer One Metal To The Other?

The decision of which metal to use in your application could come down to the industry you are in. While there is a tremendous diversity in both stainless steel and aluminum alloys, in general, certain industries or applications will prefer one to the other. For instance, as mentioned previously, industries that work with food, whether packaging, restaurants or storage, will likely rely on stainless steel since it is less reactive with food.

In industries that prize a lightweight, aluminum will be the go-to choice. This includes transportation, such as high-speed trains, motor vehicles, and of course aircraft and spacecraft. However, when strength is the only consideration, stainless steel will be the better choice, as it tends to be much stronger than all but the most highly advanced aluminum alloys.

Summary

No matter what industry you are in, the knowledgeable and friendly technical professionals at Clinton Aluminum and Stainless Steel can help. We pride ourselves on being more than a supplier. We partner with our clients to guide them through every step of their production process to ensure they can remain competitive. By getting to know our customer’s needs, we can better help them make the right choice of material.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you.

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