Steel Stainless, After All These Years

I did a lab project involving a spectroscopic study of stainless steel at the end of the semester, which got me a little curious about just what it is that makes stainless steel so special. The answer was somewhat interesting*, but not as interesting as the news-clipping I found on the stainless steel wikipedia page. It comes from the New York Times, and was published on January 31st 1915.

There’s a number of things about this that really struck me as interesting, so I just had to share it with folks. First, the New York Times existed in 1915. In retrospect, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that the paper has been around forever (been in publication continuously since 1851, apparently), but I never really processed until now that the newspaper I now read in the mornings has a legacy that stretches all the way back to before the civil war.

Then, there’s the fact that the biggest “perk” of this new discovery, the one touted in the first paragraph of the news story, is that it might one day allow people to clean their forks and spoons with just “ordinary washing.” It’s quite something, isn’t it, to think that there was a time when clean, shiny-looking silverware didn’t exist for most folks, and that even the ones rich enough to own some were constantly having to scrub and polish it so that the vinegar from their salad dressings didn’t chew up the finish.

But most of all, I just love being reminded that revolutionary technological advances aren’t always big stories. Here’s the invention of stainless steel, a material which has become quite literally a central piece of the architecture of modern society, given just a few column-inches in the New York Times. Isn’t it fun to wonder what little-celebrated achievements in the past few years may one day transform modern culture so much that everyone forgets we ever lived without it? Everyone remembers December 17th, 1903, as the day human beings discovered they could take to the air. But for some reason I really enjoy knowing that it would be 12 more years before they learned that average citizens could have shiny cutlery, medical tools could be steam-cleaned without causing rust, and restaurants could be built with an art-deco flair. **




* If you’re curious, the answer is the combination of three handy effects. Here’s the gist: stainless steel is mostly iron and chromium, and when the chromium in the steel comes in contact with the oxygen in the atmosphere, it forms a new substance (Chromium-III oxide) which is nearly air and water-tight. Thus, when you expose stainless steel to air, it suddenly turns its outermost layer into a protective film just a few atoms thick; much to thin to obscure the shininess of the metal but thick enough to keep out the weather. Now of course there are many metals that do this, but the trick with stainless steel is that the chromium oxide molecules in this protective layer are nearly the same size as the atoms of “plain” chromium right below, so the two become enmeshed and the protective layer stays snugly in place (Iron, on the other hand, rusts because the molecules in its “protective layer” are much larger than the atoms below, and tend to just flake off). And perhaps the best part is that if the metal should ever become scratched or scuffed, breaking up this protective layer, the newly exposed chromium beneath the surface quickly forms more of the protective oxide coating, making the forks in your silverware drawer seem suddenly a bit less like just eating utensils and a little more like living creatures complete with defense mechanisms and an ability to heal.


**I worry I’m trivializing the importance of stainless steel here in modern society. It’s also essential in all sorts of  other applications: car exhaust systems, rustless pipes in water treatment plants, underwater oil lines, tankards for transporting everything from industrial chemicals to orange juice, razor blades, nuts and bolts, door and window fittings, beams and girders in building foundations, MRI scanners, microwave oven liners, rolex watch bands, and of course, the Chrysler building.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to Steel Stainless, After All These Years

  1. S says:

    That’s really cool. When you say “nearly the same size” does that refer to the lattice bond lengths or are they free-standing particles with similar spatial characteristics?

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