What Is Stainless Steel and Why Is it Stainless? In 1913, English metallurgist Harry Brearly, working on a project to improve rifle barrels, accidentally discovered that adding chromium to low carbon steel gives it stain resistance. In addition to iron, carbon, and chromium, modern stainless steel may also contain other elements, such as nickel, niobium, molybdenum, and titanium. Nickel, molybdenum, niobium, and chromium enhance the corrosion resistance of stainless steel. It is the addition of a minimum of 12% chromium to the steel that makes it resist rust, or stain ‘less’ than other types of steel. The chromium in the steel combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to form a thin, invisible layer of chrome-containing oxide, called the passive film. The sizes of chromium atoms and their oxides are similar, so they pack neatly together on the surface of the metal, forming a stable layer only a few atoms thick. If the metal is cut or scratched and the passive film is disrupted, more oxide will quickly form and recover the exposed surface, protecting it from oxidative corrosion. (Iron, on the other hand, rusts quickly because atomic iron is much smaller than its oxide, so the oxide forms a loose rather than tightly-packed layer and flakes away.) The passive film requires oxygen to self-repair, so stainless steels have poor corrosion resistance in low-oxygen and poor circulation environments. In seawater, chlorides from the salt will attack and destroy the passive film more quickly than it can be repaired in a low oxygen environment.
Stainless steel is not a single specific material – it is the name given to a group of corrosion-resistant steels containing a minimum of 11% chromium – varying additions of nickel, molybdenum, titanium, niobium and other elements may also be present. The mechanical properties and behavior in service of each type of steel depends upon its composition and consequently a carefully considered choice of steel is vital.
There are four classes of stainless steel: