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Why stainless steel corrodes

Stainless steel has unique properties which can be taken advantage of in a wide variety of applications in the construction industry. This paper reviews how research activities over the last 20 years have impacted the use of stainless steel in construction. Significant technological advances in materials processing have led to the development of duplex stainless steel tubing with excellent mechanical properties; important progress has also been made in the improvement of surface finishes for architectural applications Structural research programmes across the world have laid the ground for the development of national and international specifications, codes and standards spanning both the design, fabrication and erection processes. Recommendations are made on research activities aimed at overcoming obstacles to the wider use of stainless steel in construction. New opportunities for stainless steel arising from the shift towards sustainable development are reviewed, including its use in nuclear containment structures, thin-walled cladding and composite floor systems.

Stainless steels are used in countless diverse applications for their corrosion resistance. Although they have extremely good general resistance, they are nevertheless susceptible to pitting corrosion. This localized dissolution of an oxide-covered metal in specific aggressive environments is one of the most common and catastrophic causes of failure of metallic structures. The pitting process has been described as random, sporadic and stochastic and the prediction of the time and location of events remains extremely difficult1. Many contested models of pitting corrosion exist, but one undisputed aspect is that manganese sulphide inclusions play a critical role. Indeed, the vast majority of pitting events are found to occur at, or adjacent to, such second-phase particles2,3. Chemical changes in and around sulphide inclusions have been postulated4 as a mechanism for pit initiation but such variations have never been measured. Here we use nanometre-scale secondary ion mass spectroscopy to demonstrate a significant reduction in the Cr:Fe ratio of the steel matrix around MnS particles. These chromium-depleted zones are susceptible to high-rate dissolution that ‘triggers’ pitting. The implications of these results are that materials processing conditions control the likelihood of corrosion failures, and these data provide a basis for optimizing such conditions.

Stainless steel remains stainless, or does not rust, because of the interaction between its alloying elements and the environment. Stainless steel contains iron, chromium, manganese, silicon, carbon and, in many cases, significant amounts of nickel and molybdenum. These elements react with oxygen from water and air to form a very thin, stable film that consists of such corrosion products as metal oxides and hydroxides. Chromium plays a dominant role in reacting with oxygen to form this corrosion product film. In fact, all stainless steels by definition contain at least 10 percent chromium.

The presence of the stable film prevents additional corrosion by acting as a barrier that limits oxygen and water access to the underlying metal surface. Because the film forms so readily and tightly, even only a few atomic layers reduce the rate of corrosion to very low levels. The fact that the film is much thinner than the wavelength of light makes it difficult to see without the aid of modern instruments. Thus, although the steel is corroded on the atomic level, it appears stainless. Common inexpensive steel, in contrast, reacts with oxygen from water to form a relatively unstable iron oxide/hydroxide film that continues to grow with time and exposure to water and air. As such, this film, otherwise known as rust, achieves sufficient thickness to make it easily observable soon after exposure to water and air.

In summary, stainless steel does not rust because it is sufficiently reactive to protect itself from further attack by forming a passive corrosion product layer. (Other important metals such as titanium and aluminum also rely on passive film formation for their corrosion resistance.) Because of its durability and aesthetic appeal, 304 stainless steel 3 inch pipe is used in a wide variety of products, ranging from eating utensils to bank vaults to kitchen sinks.

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