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Steel Alloys

Steel Alloys can be divided into five groups

Carbon Steels
High Strength Low Alloy Steels
Quenched and Tempered Steels
Heat Treatable Low Alloy Steels
Chromium-Molybdenum Steels

Steels are readily available in various product forms. The American Iron and Steel Institute defines carbon steel as follows:

Steel is considered to be carbon steel when no minimum content is specified or required for chromium, cobalt, columbium [niobium], molybdenum, nickel, titanium, tungsten, vanadium or zirconium, or any other element to be added to obtain a desired alloying effect; when the specified minimum for copper does not exceed 0.40 per cent; or when the maximum content specified for any of the following elements does not exceed the percentages noted: manganese 1.65, silicon 0.60, copper 0.60. Carbon steels are normally classified as shown below.

Low-carbon steels contain up to 0.30 weight percent C. The largest category of this class of steel is flat-rolled products (sheet or strip) usually in the cold-rolled and annealed condition. The carbon content for these high-formability steels is very low, less than 0.10 weight percent C, with up to 0.4 weight percent Mn. For rolled steel structural plates and sections, the carbon content may be increased to approximately 0.30 weight percent, with higher manganese up to 1.5 weight percent.

Medium-carbon steels are similar to low-carbon steels except that the carbon ranges from 0.30 to 0.60 weight percent and the manganese from 0.60 to 1.65 weight percent. Increasing the carbon content to approximately 0.5 weight percent with an accompanying increase in manganese allows medium-carbon steels to be used in the quenched and tempered condition.

High-carbon steels contain from 0.60 to 1.00 weight percent C with manganese contents ranging from 0.30 to 0.90weight percent.

High-strength low-alloy (HSLA) steels, or microalloyed steels, are designed to provide better mechanical properties than conventional carbon steels. They are designed to meet specific mechanical properties rather than a chemical composition. The chemical composition of a specific HSLA steel may vary for different product thickness to meet mechanical property requirements. The HSLA steels have low carbon contents (0.50 to ~0.25 weight percent C) in order to produce adequate formability and weldability, and they have manganese contents up to 2.0 weight percent. Small quantities of chromium, nickel, molybdenum, copper, nitrogen, vanadium, niobium, titanium, and zirconium are used in various combinations.

Below is a list of some SAE-AISI designations for Steel (the xx in the last two digits indicate the carbon content in hundredths of a percent)

Carbon Steels

effect of carbon content on the hardness of steel

Illustration of effect of Carbon content on Steel Hardness


Plain Carbon




Resulfurized and rephosphorized

Manganese steels


Mn 1.75

Nickel steels


Ni 3.5


Ni 5.0

Nickel Chromium Steels


Ni 1.25 Cr 0.65-0.80


Ni 1.75 Cr 1.07


Ni 3.50 Cr 1.50-1.57


Ni 3.00 Cr 0.77

Chromium Molybdenum steels


Cr 0.50-0.95 Mo 0.12-0.30

Nickel Chromium Molybdenum steels


Ni 1.82 Cr 0.50-0.80 Mo 0.25


Ni 1.05 Cr 0.45 Mo 0.20 – 0.35


Ni 0.55 Cr 0.50 Mo 0.20

Nickel Molybdenum steels


Ni 0.85-1.82 Mo 0.20


Ni 3.50 Mo 0.25

Chromium steels


Cr 0.27- 0.65


Cr 0.80 – 1.05

Effects of Elements on Steel

Steels are among the most commonly used alloys. The complexity of steel alloys is fairly significant. Not all effects of the varying elements are included. The following text gives an overview of some of the effects of various alloying elements. Additional research should be performed prior to making any design or engineering conclusions.

Carbon has a major effect on steel properties. Carbon is the primary hardening element in steel. Hardness and tensile strength increases as carbon content increases up to about 0.85% C as shown in the figure above. Ductility and weldability decrease with increasing carbon.

Manganese is generally beneficial to surface quality especially in resulfurized steels. Manganese contributes to strength and hardness, but less than carbon. The increase in strength is dependent upon the carbon content. Increasing the manganese content decreases ductility and weldability, but less than carbon. Manganese has a significant effect on the hardenability of steel.

Phosphorus increases strength and hardness and decreases ductility and notch impact toughness of steel. The adverse effects on ductility and toughness are greater in quenched and tempered higher-carbon steels. Phosphorous levels are normally controlled to low levels. Higher phosphorus is specified in low-carbon free-machining steels to improve machinability.

Sulfur decreases ductility and notch impact toughness especially in the transverse direction. Weldability decreases with increasing sulfur content. Sulfur is found primarily in the form of sulfide inclusions. Sulfur levels are normally controlled to low levels. The only exception is free-machining steels, where sulfur is added to improve machinability.

Silicon is one of the principal deoxidizers used in steelmaking. Silicon is less effective than manganese in increasing as-rolled strength and hardness. In low-carbon steels, silicon is generally detrimental to surface quality.

Copper in significant amounts is detrimental to hot-working steels. Copper negatively affects forge welding, but does not seriously affect arc or oxyacetylene welding. Copper can be detrimental to surface quality. Copper is beneficial to atmospheric corrosion resistance when present in amounts exceeding 0.20%. Weathering steels are sold having greater than 0.20% Copper.

Lead is virtually insoluble in liquid or solid steel. However, lead is sometimes added to carbon and alloy steels by means of mechanical dispersion during pouring to improve the machinability.

Boron is added to fully killed steel to improve hardenability. Boron-treated steels are produced to a range of 0.0005 to 0.003%. Whenever boron is substituted in part for other alloys, it should be done only with hardenability in mind because the lowered alloy content may be harmful for some applications. Boron is a potent alloying element in steel. A very small amount of boron (about 0.001%) has a strong effect on hardenability. Boron steels are generally produced within a range of 0.0005 to 0.003%. Boron is most effective in lower carbon steels.

Chromium is commonly added to steel to increase corrosion resistance and oxidation resistance, to increase hardenability, or to improve high-temperature strength. As a hardening element, Chromium is frequently used with a toughening element such as nickel to produce superior mechanical properties. At higher temperatures, chromium contributes increased strength. Chromium is a strong carbide former. Complex chromium-iron carbides go into solution in austenite slowly; therefore, sufficient heating time must be allowed for prior to quenching.

Nickel is a ferrite strengthener. Nickel does not form carbides in steel. It remains in solution in ferrite, strengthening and toughening the ferrite phase. Nickel increases the hardenability and impact strength of steels.

Molybdenum increases the hardenability of steel. Molybdenum may produce secondary hardening during the tempering of quenched steels. It enhances the creep strength of low-alloy steels at elevated temperatures.

Aluminum is widely used as a deoxidizer. Aluminum can control austenite grain growth in reheated steels and is therefore added to control grain size. Aluminum is the most effective alloy in controlling grain growth prior to quenching. Titanium, zirconium, and vanadium are also valuable grain growth inhibitors, but there carbides are difficult to dissolve into solution in austenite.

Zirconium can be added to killed high-strength low-alloy steels to achieve improvements in inclusion characteristics. Zirconium causes sulfide inclusions to be globular rather than elongated thus improving toughness and ductility in transverse bending.

Niobium (Columbium) increases the yield strength and, to a lesser degree, the tensile strength of carbon steel. The addition of small amounts of Niobium can significantly increase the yield strength of steels. Niobium can also have a moderate precipitation strengthening effect. Its main contributions are to form precipitates above the transformation temperature, and to retard the recrystallization of austenite, thus promoting a fine-grain microstructure having improved strength and toughness.

Titanium is used to retard grain growth and thus improve toughness. Titanium is also used to achieve improvements in inclusion characteristics. Titanium causes sulfide inclusions to be globular rather than elongated thus improving toughness and ductility in transverse bending.

Vanadium increases the yield strength and the tensile strength of carbon steel. The addition of small amounts of Niobium can significantly increase the strength of steels. Vanadium is one of the primary contributors to precipitation strengthening in microalloyed steels. When thermo mechanical processing is properly controlled the ferrite grain size is refined and there is a corresponding increase in toughness. The impact transition temperature also increases when vanadium is added.

All microalloy steels contain small concentrations of one or more strong carbide and nitride forming elements. Vanadium, niobium, and titanium combine preferentially with carbon and/or nitrogen to form a fine dispersion of precipitated particles in the steel matrix.