Materials Science

Are metal and steel the same thing?
Answered by Science Channel
  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, no: Metal and steel are not the same thing. (If that were true, after all, we could as easily refer to Superman as the "Man of Metal" as the "Man of Steel" and not be wrong. And that just doesn't really work, does it?) If you think about the term metal, you'll remember that it is a term for an entire class of substances and that there are lots of metals. Gold, for example, is a metal (and a precious one at that!). Silver is a metal. Copper is -- you guessed it! -- a metal. It's the same thing for iron as well. Metals are elementary chemical substances. Just dig up an old copy of the Periodic Table of Elements that you never threw away from your days struggling through high-school chemistry class. Check out the metals section of the table. You'll see metals such as nickel, iron, copper and zinc. But guess what you won't see -- steel.

    Steel, instead, is an alloy of iron with a smallish amount of carbon (about .5 percent to 1.5 percent). So, given that it's an alloy with both metal (iron) and non-metal (carbon) components it isn't really a metal at all, and it's not exactly a simple process to make it. The first step in creating steel starts in enormous blast furnaces that heat up iron ore to ungodly temperatures (about 4,000 degrees F, or 2,204 degrees C). That heat gets rid of the oxygen in the ore, forming unsullied molten iron and bonding carbon to the iron. This mix liquefies, and impurities such as silica and sulfur are separated from the heavy iron, the latter flowing out of the furnace in a stream from spigots. The iron ore is then made into tiny pellets that are baked until they are super-strong. Those pellets are then used to make steel.

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