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Stainless steel does not readily corrode, rust or stain with water as ordinary steel does. However, it is not fully stain-proof in low-oxygen, high-salinity, or poor air-circulation environments. There are different grades and surface finishes of stainless steel to suit the environment the alloy must endure. Stainless steel is used where both the properties of steel and corrosion resistance are required.
Stainless steel differs from carbon steel by the amount of chromium present. Unprotected carbon steel rusts readily when exposed to air and moisture. This iron oxide film (the rust) is active and accelerates corrosion by forming more iron oxide; and, because of the greater volume of the iron oxide, this tends to flake and fall away. Stainless steels contain sufficient chromium to form a passive film of chromium oxide, which prevents further surface corrosion by blocking oxygen diffusion to the steel surface and blocks corrosion from spreading into the metal's internal structure, and, due to the similar size of the steel and oxide ions, they bond very strongly and remain attached to the surface.
Passivation occurs only if the proportion of chromium is high enough and oxygen is present.
High oxidation resistance in air at ambient temperature is normally achieved with additions of a minimum of 13% (by weight) chromium, and up to 26% is used for harsh environments. The chromium forms a passivation layer of chromium(III) oxide (Cr2O3) when exposed to oxygen. The layer is too thin to be visible, and the metal remains lustrous and smooth. The layer is impervious to water and air, protecting the metal beneath, and this layer quickly reforms when the surface is scratched. This phenomenon is called passivation and is seen in other metals, such as aluminium and titanium. Corrosion resistance can be adversely affected if the component is used in a non-oxygenated environment, a typical example being underwater keel bolts buried in timber.
When stainless steel parts such as nuts and bolts are forced together, the oxide layer can be scraped off, allowing the parts to weld together. When forcibly disassembled, the welded material may be torn and pitted, an effect known as galling. This destructive galling can be avoided by the use of dissimilar materials for the parts forced together, for example bronze and stainless steel, or even different types of stainless steels (martensitic against austenitic). However, two different alloys electrically connected in a humid environment may act as Voltaic pile and corrode faster. Nitronic alloys made by selective alloying with manganese and nitrogen may have a reduced tendency to gall. Additionally, threaded joints may be lubricated to prevent galling.
Stainless steel is generally highly resistant to attack from acids, but this quality depends on the kind and concentration of the acid, the surrounding temperature, and the type of steel. Type 904 is resistant to sulfuric acid at room temperature, even in high concentrations, type 316 and 317 are resistant below 10% and 304 should not be used at any concentration. All types of stainless steel resist attack from phosphoric acid, 316 and 317 more so than 304; and Types 304L and 430 have been successfully used with nitric acid. Hydrochloric acid will damage any kind of stainless steel, and should be avoided.
The 300 series of stainless steel grades is unaffected by any of the weak bases such as ammonium hydroxide, even in high concentrations and at high temperatures. The same grades of stainless exposed to stronger bases such as sodium hydroxide at high concentrations and high temperatures will likely experience some etching and cracking, especially with solutions containing chlorides.
Types 316 and 317 are both useful for storing and handling acetic acid, especially in solutions where it is combined with formic acid and when aeration is not present (oxygen helps protect stainless steel under such conditions), though 317 provides the greatest level of resistance to corrosion. Type 304 is also commonly used with formic acid though it will tend to discolor the solution. All grades resist damage from aldehydes and amines, though in the latter case grade 316 is preferable to 304; cellulose acetate will damage 304 unless the temperature is kept low. Fats and fatty acids only affect grade 304 at temperatures above 150 °C (302 °F), and grade 316 above 260 °C (500 °F), while 317 is unaffected at all temperatures. Type 316L is required for processing of urea.
Similarly to steel, stainless steel is a relatively poor conductor of electricity, with a lower electrical conductivity than that of copper.
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