Stainless steel applications

Can mankind survive without stainless steels?

Joanne McIntyre - 26 March 2015

Stainless steels have a large impact upon our lives but are they really indispensable? Expert Jan Olof Nilsson certainly thinks so and argues a good case.

About the author

Mrs Joanne McIntyre
Joanne McIntyre is the Editor in Chief of Stainless Steel World magazine, and Conference Coordinator for the Duplex Seminar & Summit.
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During the history of mankind stainless steels have only been available for approximately one hundred years, a period that is vanishingly small compared with the time man has existed on earth. Yet we are now quite dependent on this amazing metal and in many cases owe our very survival to it, argues independent consultant Jan Olof Nilsson in a recent issue of Stainless Steel World magazine.

Despite their short history, stainless steels have played a central role in our society since their introduction just before the First World War. In fact, it can be argued that they had a significant influence on the outcome of the war itself because of their use in the production of artificial gunpowder.

New process metallurgical techniques which emerged during the 1960’s lowered the cost of stainless steels and made them available for a wide range of every day applications. The high carbon content, which had plagued the stainless steels in the first decades and sometimes had given them a bad reputation because of intergranular corrosion, could be reduced at a much lower cost. As a result, high quality stainless steels became accessible to a large majority of people all over the world and led to a six-fold increase in stainless steel production from the early 1970’s up to the present. A dramatic improvement in the quality of life ensued.

Nilsson argues the case that stainless steels are now ubiquitous in our lives; we find them in our homes, cars, food handling, dairying, and medical industries to name just a few. From syringes to fridges, from car exhausts to the milk in your coffee, life has been dramatically improved and made safer thanks to stainless steels. Yet are these really necessary for our survival?

A matter of survival

A major concern today is how to produce sufficient food for our growing world population of over 7.3 billion people. Moreover, global warming is already having a harmful effect on our climate and health and is a major threat to our civilization. How do we approach these problems? It so happens that stainless steels play a crucial role in our efforts to tackle these problems. Electric cars will go a long way towards reducing pollution, and an interesting fact about fuel cells is that stainless steels play a very important role in the form of thin steel sheets separating each cell in the stack.

Modern agriculture is dependent upon urea, a highly corrosive fertilizer for which the production processes require – you guessed it – large amounts of stainless steels. Considering the fact that urea increases the yield by a factor of 3-4 implies that the global food production without urea would be insufficient to sustain the present world population.

Medical equipment such as syringes, hip and other joint transplants, and medical screws, plates etc. play a vital role in saving and prolonging life – and wouldn’t be possible without stainless steels.

Read the full article about how mankind needs stainless steels to survive in the Stainless Steel World files.

About the article's author

Jan-Olof Nilsson has spent 35 years at the R&D Centre of Sandvik Materials Technology in Sandviken after receiving a PhD in Physics from University of Gothenburg in 1979. During this time he has also held a position as an adjunct professor of Physics for 9 years at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. He has published some 150 scientific papers within Physical Metallurgy in reviewed journals. Since the beginning of May 2014 he runs his own consultancy in Materials Technology (JON Materials Consulting) with the emphasis on Stainless Steels.

He can be reached by email under the address:

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