Stainless Steel is quite simply everywhere; you cannot avoid it. The materials strength, mixed with its adaptability and resistance to corrosion, make it one of the world’s most popular resources. For over a century, steel has played a vital role in our construction industries, transportation methods, medical practices and household appliances. More than 1.3 billion tons of this metal is produced every single year; a proportion of which has ended up in some of our most impressive architectural structures.
Requiring very little maintenance, the average lifetime of a stainless steel product is between 15-25 years; though for some applications this can be much longer. So with steel playing such a pivotal role in our developments over the last 100 years or so, what does the future hold for this magnificent metal?
History of Stainless Steel
Before we discuss what lies ahead, let’s take a brief look at the past. It is hard to trace the exact roots of stainless steel and pinpoint a single inventor or movement; as this material emerged by way of frequent modification and input from various parties. A number of various alloys existed in the early 1800’s that featured some of the properties stainless steel has today; the main difference being the level of chromium within them.
It was not until 1911 when German innovators P. Monnartz and W. Borchers noted that 10.5% chromium was the minimum level required to resist corrosion. Two years later, Sheffield born Harry Brearley is credited with the invention of the stainless steel we know today. Originally called ‘rustless steel’ the material has since gone on to shape many of our most impressive structures; including New York’s Chrysler Building, the Gateway Arch at St. Louis and the Progreso Pier in Mexico.
Current Everyday Use
These days, we use steel for more applications than just building. We now require this metal for food production, medical equipment, transportation, aerospace exploration, kitchen appliances and much, much more. Stainless steel is used to create our ovens, our cooking utensils and even our tableware. All for two very good and very simple reasons – stainless steel is strong and very easy to clean. It is also scientifically proven to be more hygienic than any other substance that can come into contact with food; leaving your food untainted by metallic elements.
Moving Forward into 2050
It is predicted that by the year 2050 the population in our biggest cities will reach two billion; meaning our construction will grow by more than 70% and reach $15 trillion. Almost 50% of all steel production is put into construction. With this in mind, we can safely say that steel manufacturers and the industry as a whole have nothing to worry about (in terms of stability) for the considerable future.
So with demand set to increase, what should be the objective of our major steel manufacturers in the next decade or two? One major initiative is to lower the amount of energy used in the manufacturing process. To reach this goal, the US is already exploring the possibility of replacing carbon with hydrogen in blast furnaces to lower the amount of carbon emissions produced during the process. Alongside this, ULCOS (a consortium of 48 European companies from 15 European countries) have launched a research and development campaign into reducing CO2 emissions from steel manufacturing. Their aim is to effectively cut carbon emissions by up to 50%.
Establishing Renewable Energy Supplies
Now more than ever, it is an extremely important challenge for all businesses to contribute towards energy-efficient proposals whilst also lowering their own environmental impact. As well as attempting to reduce the carbon footprint manufacturers have on the planet, steel production is also helping to build renewable energy sources. This material is already being used to create lighter, more fuel-efficient parts for motor vehicles and now it is required to build renewable energy infrastructure.
Industry leaders see this as not only an opportunity to pioneer renewable energy sources, but also a chance to build a successful and stable future; in terms of profit and growth. Global markets and requirements naturally fluctuate, but the demand for materials to build renewable energy sources will ensure regular labor and turnover. See below for areas of this movement that will require stainless steel input:
- Wind Power – Wind farms are perhaps the front runner in the renewable energy race as they are popping up on shores all over the world. A single wind turbine can use over 140 tons of steel, whilst an off-shore farm can utilize anywhere above 10,000 tons. The tower, foundations, nacelle and rotor are all almost completely made from stainless steel.
- Nuclear Energy – Responsible for around 13% of the world’s electricity supply, greenhouse gas levels are very low throughout nuclear energy production. This is why it is considered similar to a renewable energy source. Steel is used in the pressure tubes and to construct the actual containment around the nuclear reactor.
- Solar Power – Stainless steel is an important element in most solar energy applications. With a high resistance to corrosion, stainless steel tanks offer a heat storage system perfect for solar farms as it allows solar heat to be kept for up to 15 hours. This enables solar plants to operate without disruption.
- Biofuels – The production of biofuels relies on the creation of ethanol. This involves many corrosive processes that require tanks and pipes to be made from stainless steel. Treatment of raw materials to gain biogas involves strong acids and substances that cannot corrode certain steel products. A standard biofuel plant can use up to 2,000 tons of stainless steel.
Still a Vital Role to Play
As the evidence and information above suggests, the stainless steel industry is set to be as essential and as busy as it has ever been in the near future. The production of this material will continue to play a vital role in the future of both the environment and our economy. As the population of the world grows so will the demand for this brilliantly versatile matter and with it will come increased opportunities for development, employment and growth.
As the world switches to more environmentally friendly alternatives to energy production, steelmakers must make sure they adhere to these changes whilst also providing the materials needed to make them happen. It is their duty to lower their own carbon footprint, whilst helping the initiative to lower everybody else’s. The future is bright, the future is stainless!
Ian Steele is an experienced metallurgist and a freelance writer on behalf of Castle Metals. He believes that whilst other trades have nose-dived during recent difficult economic times, the steel industry has remained prosperous and will continue to do so in the near future. Increasing population levels and the forthcoming initiatives behind renewable energy will be the driving force behind Ian’s prediction.