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Stainless Steel Uses in Engineering


Stainless steel, because of its versatility, strength, and affordability, is commonly found in nearly every industry. Everyone is familiar with the home uses for stainless steel, as it has become nearly ubiquitous in kitchen applications thanks to its corrosion resistance properties, including utensils, appliances, sauce pans, and containers.

Of course, there’s much more to stainless steel than just domestic uses. Industries that rely on stainless steel include transportation (ship containers, exhaust systems), oil and gas (pipelines, cable trays), medical (surgical instruments, MRI scanners), water utilities (water and sewage treatment), and electrical (wiring, nuts and bolts). But in particular, one industry that has been transformed by the revolutions in stainless steel alloys is engineering and architecture.

How was Stainless Steel First Developed?

The history of stainless steel is an interesting one. While the creation of steel alloys goes back over 2,000 years, what we know as stainless steel did not appear until the 20th century and took nearly 100 years to develop. Pierre Berthier, a French scientist in the early 1800’s, had first discovered that certain iron-chromium alloys were resistant to acid. However, his early experiments in creating cutlery and other tools proved far too brittle for everyday use.

Over the next decades, various experimenters tried different combinations of elements in order to figure out a mixture of carbon and chromium that would provide the desired corrosion resistance while being formable enough. A major breakthrough occurred in the 1890’s when Hans Goldschmidt came up with a method for producing carbon-free chromium.

Although not traditionally credited with discovering stainless steel, Leon Guillet actually posted the first research on a number of alloys in use today, including 410, 420, 446, and 440 C. Among his developments, he laid out the structure for austenitic stainless steel. Around the same time, Albert Portevin formulated the 430 stainless steel alloy. Two United States scientists, Christian Dantsizen and Frederick Becket, were busy developing ferritic stainless steels. And in 1911, Philip Monnartz showed that chromium content had a direct correlation to corrosion resistance.

So it was a natural progression of the above research when Harry Brearly of Brown-Firth Laboratories produced the first stainless steel knives. Ironically, he was actually trying to work with rifle barrels, and in the process of his experiments, he found that his samples were exceptionally resistant to corrosion from substances such as nitric acid, lemon juice, and vinegar. The year was 1913.

Early Engineering Uses of Stainless Steel

It didn’t take long for stainless steel to find widespread use in a number of industries, with early applications in cutlery, medical tools, cars, chemical tanks, and aircraft engines. But in terms of engineering, there were two prominent examples of stainless steel use that garnered worldwide attention. When the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was refurbished in 1925, the iron chain that previously held the dome together, obviating the need for buttresses, was replaced by a new reinforcement chain made of stainless steel. The iconic spire of the Chrysler Building in New York, which was built in 1928, is also made of stainless steel.

These early examples opened the door to stainless steel in engineering and architecture, and as more and more alloys were introduced, the industry was changed forever.

Why Stainless Steel is so Popular With Engineers

Once the possibility of working with stainless steel in architecture and civil engineering projects was introduced, it quickly became a go to material, especially as more and more developments were made with stainless steel alloys. In modern construction, certain core properties of the material have made it indispensible.

First, many steel alloys offer tremendous strength, much greater than pure iron. It offers the possibility for both cold hardening and retaining its strength at high temperatures. Combine that with its flexibility and formability, two traits that engineers absolutely love.

Certain grades are highly weldable and can be purchased as welding wire. It also offers tremendous aesthetic appeal and has an attractive finish. In this modern era of sustainable building and green architecture, stainless steel is easily recyclable and can be used in applications that accentuate the natural light of a building, reducing on energy costs.

Of course, stainless steel’s most prominent characteristic is its corrosion resistance. Due to its high chromium content (at least 10.5%), the alloy forms its own protective oxide layer that actually has the ability to repair itself. No matter what fabrication method you use, stainless steel will retain its resistance, even if it’s cut or otherwise damaged after deployment.

Knowing what type of atmosphere the finished product is likely to be exposed to will directly affect what grade you choose. For instance, for structures in a marine environment, it’s necessary to select an alloy that is suitable for chloride, as many forms of stainless steel are susceptible to corrosion in seawater. Generally speaking, alloys that feature high amounts of chromium, molybdenum, and nickel offer the greatest corrosion resistance.

This matters, because studies have shown that corrosion resistance is one of the greatest drags on the global economy every year. The US Federal Highway Administration estimates that the United States spends 276 billion dollars a year on damage caused by corrosion. Using proven materials such as stainless steel in engineering projects can go a long way to reducing that number, and making our buildings and structures more durable in the long term.


Clinton Aluminum and Steel has a proven history of successfully partnering with manufacturers in nearly every industry. We pride ourselves on our ability to not only provide the exact product that you need to the exact specifications, but doing so quickly and without any hassle. Our sales team and warehouse managers are made up of experienced technical professionals with an average of nearly 13 years working for Clinton.

That’s why Clinton is recognized as the Midwest’s leading supplier of aluminum and stainless steel products. Please contact us today to learn more about Clinton’s commitment to service, value, and education.

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