Importance of Steel: A History of Steel and Why It’s Still Important Today
The world as we know it would not be the same without the discovery and advent of steel. This useful metal has a daily impact on our lives, far more than we may even realize.
From the buildings we work and live in, the cars we drive to the utensils we eat with, steel is everywhere. Quite simply, the invention of steel has helped to modernize the world and make it a convenient place to live.
To learn more about the history and importance of steel in our everyday lives, this blogs outlines what you need to know…
The Importance of Steel and its Impact on Society
Steel, as a precious metal, has had the greatest impact on the human race. It is, by far, the most widely used, multi-functional and adaptable natural material found and mined from the earth.
In fact, many would go so far as to say that the development of mankind itself would have been impossible without the invention of steel.
This useful article further highlights why steel is so important in our world today.
The Adaptability of Steel
Steel has an almost unlimited variety of uses in today’s world, which is a marker for its incredible adaptability. Some defining characteristics include:
- Heat resistance
- Resistant to deformation at both high and cold temperatures
- Corrosion resistant
- It can be easily machined
- It’s formable to both hot and cold
- It’s hard wearing, tough and all-weather-proof
To add to this, steel has a very low production cost, when compared to other materials. It’s also environmentally friendly as it can be recycled. The energy required for the production of steel is also 25% lower than that of aluminum and other non-ferrous metals.
The earth’s crust is comprised of 5.6% iron, so this represents a secure raw material base for the production of steel.
The steel industry of today has helped to develop some of the world’s most forward-thinking technologies. Essentially, it has created the ”age of convenience” in which we now live.
Stainless steel, developed by British metallurgist, Harry Brearly, is used in most of today’s gadgets, machinery, tools, household goods, and more.
From surgical tools to the hub caps on your car, to kitchen utensils, building materials, and even furniture, stainless steel is extremely versatile.
Indeed, steel is the backbone and support of the global economy and infrastructure. It’s a massive industry worth approximately $900 billion per year.
This being said, steel has some stiff competition from its close cousin in the industry, aluminum. Today, there are 2,000 grades of steel, 1,500 of which are considered high grades of steel.
There is still much potential for developing new grades of steel with a higher quality grade, in a more environmentally manner as well.
A Brief History of Steel
Steel is actually derived from an element known as iron, found in abundance within the earth’s crust, as mentioned.
Therefore, it’s iron which is one of the most important precious metals which exist, even still in the 21st century. Workable ores of iron have been around for more than 3,000 years and can be found in most parts of the world.
Various techniques can produce different forms of steel- each with its own unique set of properties and uses.
Throughout history, there have existed three basic forms of iron: cast iron, wrought iron, and steel. But mining iron from the earth was only half the battle for many centuries.
It took roughly 700 years for our ancestors to truly understand the qualities of iron and how to separate iron from ore.
Craftsmen throughout the centuries relied on both observation and experience and soon discovered how these variations of iron could be used. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the real differences between them were understood.
Early Forms of Steel
The advent of steel came about when the role of carbon and its properties were discovered. Steel is comprised of a range of materials, but most notably, varying amounts of carbon – usually between 0.5 and 2%.
Steel is a metal that combines the toughness of wrought iron and the hardness of cast iron. As such, it was most commonly used for blades and springs in centuries passed.
By the mid-19th century, fine craftsmanship of steel was achieved as well as the discovery of new tools and techniques. Just some of these included open-hearth smelting and the Bessemer process.
From here, this made steel cheap and prevalent in a variety of modern-day uses.
In the early 1800s, the massive iron ore deposits found in the United States were still relatively untapped. In fact, the U.S. only produced a fifth of what Great Britain was producing at the time.
However, the American Civil War came and went and soon attention was focused on the Bessemer process and the ”modernized” process of steel production.
This spurred on a huge boom within the steel industry across the United States, generating more wealth than the California Rush era.
The steel boom was spearheaded by none other than Andrew Carnegie.
Known as the ”Star-Spangled Scotsman”, Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who would change the face of steel production.
Beginning in the railroad industry, he slowly worked his way to success with brilliant business acumen and wise investments. This included investments in a rail factory, locomotive works, and iron mill.
He soon focused on building bridges with the aid of the iron mill and its production of cast iron at his fingertips. By 1889 he had established the Carnegie Steel Company which build some of America’s first skyscrapers.
At this point in his career, Andrew Carnegie produced half as much steel as Great Britain – all on his own!
Steel of Today
Today, the question on everyone’s minds is: how can we reduce our carbon footprint when producing steel?
Yes, the production of steel requires far less energy than other metals. But due to production demand, the industry still contributes incredible amounts of pollution into the atmosphere.
The basic oxygen process of producing steel is still used today, despite being developed almost a century ago. This process requires coal, which emits four times the amount of greenhouse gases than electric furnaces.
However, electric furnaces are only available for recycled steel – and the reality is that there is only so much scrap steel available. New steel is always in high demand.
Despite this, metallurgists of today are in the early stages of developing environmentally friendly steel smelting technologies.
Just one of these includes electric smelting techniques which should significantly reduce the need for coal and harmful gas emissions.
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