, also called plain carbon steel
, is steel
where the main alloying constituent is carbon
. The AISI defines carbon steel as: "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."
The term carbon steel may also be used in reference to steel which is not stainless steel; in this use carbon steel may include alloy steels.
Steel with a low carbon content has properties similar to iron. As the carbon content rises, the metal becomes harder and stronger but less ductile and more difficult to weld. In general, higher carbon content lowers the melting point and its temperature resistance. Carbon content influences the yield strength of steel because carbon molecules fit into the interstitial crystal lattice sites of the body-centered cubic (BCC) arrangement of the iron molecules. The interstitial carbon reduces the mobility of dislocations, which in turn has a hardening effect on the iron. To get dislocations to move, a high enough stress level must be applied in order for the dislocations to "break away". This is because the interstitial carbon atoms cause some of the iron BCC lattice cells to distort.
85% of all steel used in the U.S. is carbon steel.
Types of carbon steel
Typical compositions of carbon:
- Mild (low carbon) steel: approximately 0.05–0.15% carbon content for low carbon steel and 0.16–0.29% carbon content for mild steel. Mild steel has a relatively low tensile strength, but it is cheap and malleable; surface hardness can be increased through carburizing.
- Medium carbon steel: approximately 0.30–0.59% carbon content. Balances ductility and strength and has good wear resistance; used for large parts, forging and automotive components.
- High carbon steel: approximately 0.6–0.99% carbon content. Very strong, used for springs and high-strength wires.
- Ultra high carbon steel: approximately 1.0–2.0% carbon content. Steels that can be tempered to great hardness. Used for special purposes like (non-industrial-purpose) knives, axles or punches. Most steels with more than 1.2% carbon content are made using powder metallurgy.
Steel can be heat treated which allows parts to be fabricated in an easily-formable soft state. If enough carbon is present, the alloy can be hardened to increase strength, wear, and impact resistance. Steels are often wrought by cold-working methods, which is the shaping of metal through deformation at a low equilibrium or metastable temperature.
is the most common form of steel as its price is relatively low while it provides material properties that are acceptable for many applications. Mild steel has a low carbon content (up to 0.3%) and is therefore neither extremely brittle nor ductile. It becomes malleable when heated, and so can be forged
. It is also often used where large amounts of steel need to be formed, for example as structural steel. Density of this metal is 7,861.093 kg/m³ (0.284 lb/in³), the tensile strength
is a maximum of 500 MPa (72,500 psi) and it has a Young's modulus
of 210 GPa.
Carbon steels which can successfully undergo heat-treatment have a carbon content in the range of 0.30–1.70% by weight. Trace impurities of various other elements can have a significant effect on the quality of the resulting steel. Trace amounts of sulfur in particular make the steel red-short. Low alloy carbon steel, such as A36 grade, contains about 0.05% sulfur and melts around 1426–1538 °C (2600–2800 °F). Manganese is often added to improve the hardenability of low carbon steels. These additions turn the material into a low alloy steel by some definitions, but AISI's definition of carbon steel allows up to 1.65% manganese by weight.
Hardened steel usually refers to quenched or quenched and tempered steel.
The purpose of heat treating carbon steel is to change the mechanical properties of steel, usually ductility, hardness, yield strength, or impact resistance. Note that the electrical and thermal conductivity are slightly altered. As with most strengthening techniques for steel, Young's modulus is unaffected. Steel has a higher solid solubility for carbon in the austenite phase; therefore all heat treatments, except spheroidizing and process annealing, start by heating to an austenitic phase. The rate at which the steel is cooled through the eutectoid reaction affects the rate at which carbon diffuses out of austenite. Generally speaking, cooling swiftly will give a finer pearlite (until the martensite critical temperature is reached) and cooling slowly will give a coarser pearlite. Cooling a hypoeutectoid (less than 0.77 wt% C) steel results in a pearlitic structure with α-ferrite at the grain boundaries. If it is hypereutectoid (more than 0.77 wt% C) steel then the structure is full pearlite with small grains of cementite scattered throughout. The relative amounts of constituents are found using the lever rule. Here is a list of the types of heat treatments possible:
- Spheroidizing: Spheroidite forms when carbon steel is heated to approximately 700 °C for over 30 hours. Spheroidite can form at lower temperatures but the time needed drastically increases, as this is a diffusion-controlled process. The result is a structure of rods or spheres of cementite within primary structure (ferrite or pearlite, depending on which side of the eutectoid you are on). The purpose is to soften higher carbon steels and allow more formability. This is the softest and most ductile form of steel. The image to the right shows where spheroidizing usually occurs.
- Full annealing: Carbon steel is heated to approximately 40 °C above Ac3 or Ac1 for 1 hour; this assures all the ferrite transforms into austenite (although cementite might still exist if the carbon content is greater than the eutectoid). The steel must then be cooled slowly, in the realm of 38 °C (100 °F) per hour. Usually it is just furnace cooled, where the furnace is turned off with the steel still inside. This results in a coarse pearlitic structure, which means the "bands" of pearlite are thick. Fully-annealed steel is soft and ductile, with no internal stresses, which is often necessary for cost-effective forming. Only spheroidized steel is softer and more ductile.
- Process annealing: A process used to relieve stress in a cold-worked carbon steel with less than 0.3 wt% C. The steel is usually heated up to 550–650 °C for 1 hour, but sometimes temperatures as high as 700 °C. The image rightward shows the area where process annealing occurs.
- Isothermal annealing: It is a process in which hypoeutectoid steel is heated above the upper critical temperature and this temperature is maintained for a time and then the temperature is brought down below lower critical temperature and is again maintained. Then finally it is cooled at room temperature. This method rids any temperature gradient.
- Normalizing: Carbon steel is heated to approximately 55 °C above Ac3 or Acm for 1 hour; this assures the steel completely transforms to austenite. The steel is then air-cooled, which is a cooling rate of approximately 38 °C (100 °F) per minute. This results in a fine pearlitic structure, and a more-uniform structure. Normalized steel has a higher strength than annealed steel; it has a relatively high strength and ductility.
- Quenching: Carbon steel with at least 0.4 wt% C is heated to normalizing temperatures and then rapidly cooled (quenched) in water, brine, or oil to the critical temperature. The critical temperature is dependent on the carbon content, but as a general rule is lower as the carbon content increases. This results in a martensitic structure; a form of steel that possesses a super-saturated carbon content in a deformed body-centered cubic (BCC) crystalline structure, properly termed body-centered tetragonal (BCT), with much internal stress. Thus quenched steel is extremely hard but brittle, usually too brittle for practical purposes. These internal stresses cause stress cracks on the surface. Quenched steel is approximately three to four (with more carbon) fold harder than normalized steel.
- Martempering (Marquenching): Martempering is not actually a tempering procedure, hence the term "marquenching". It is a form of isothermal heat treatment applied after an initial quench of typically in an oil or brine solution at a temperature right above the "martensite start temperature". At this temperature, residual stresses within the material are relieved and some bainite may be formed from the retained ferrite which did not have time to transform into anything else. In industry, this is a process used to control the ductility and hardness of a material. With longer marquenching, the ductility increases with a minimal loss in strength; the steel is held in this solution until the inner and outer temperatures equalize. Then the steel is cooled at a moderate speed to keep the temperature gradient minimal. Not only does this process reduce internal stresses and stress cracks, but it also increases the impact resistance.
- Quench and tempering: This is the most common heat treatment encountered, because the final properties can be precisely determined by the temperature and time of the tempering. Tempering involves reheating quenched steel to a temperature below the eutectoid temperature then cooling. The elevated temperature allows very small amounts of spheroidite to form, which restore ductility, but reduces hardness. Actual temperatures and times are carefully chosen for each composition.
- Austempering: The austempering process is the same as martempering, except the steel is held in the brine solution through the bainite transformation temperatures, and then moderately cooled. The resulting bainite steel has a greater ductility, higher impact resistance, and less distortion. The disadvantage of austempering is it can only be used on a few steels, and it requires a special brine solution.
Case hardening processes harden only the exterior of the steel part, creating a hard, wear resistant skin (the "case") but preserving a tough and ductile interior. Carbon steels are not very hardenable
; therefore wide pieces cannot be thru-hardened. Alloy steels have a better hardenability, so they can thruharden and do not require case hardening. This property of carbon steel can be beneficial, because it gives the surface good wear characteristics but leaves the core tough.
- Oberg, E.; et al. (1996). Machinery's Handbook. 25th edition, Industrial Press Inc.
- Smith, W.F.; Hashemi, J. (2006). Foundations of Materials Science and Engineering. 4th ed., McGraw-Hill.