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Differences Between Carbon Steel & Stainless Steel

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Steel is an overarching term that describes a host of different alloy materials. Carbon steel and stainless steel alloys are some of the most common grades used to manufacture a nearly infinite number of products throughout the world. Stainless steel and carbon steel alloys have many similar features and are both composed of iron and carbon.

The separation factor that differentiates carbon and stainless steel is the specific alloy content of each metal. The differing percentage of alloy materials provides each metal with its unique characteristics. The following table highlights some of the physical differences between carbon and stainless steel.

Physical Features Stainless Steel Carbon Steel
Melting Point The melting point of stainless steel varies between 1375 to 1530 Deg C, which is less than carbon steel. Typically, Low Carbon Steel has a melting point of 1410 Deg C. The melting point of high Carbon steel ranges between 1425-1540 Deg C, which is greater than stainless steel.
Average Density The average Density of Stainless Steel is 8000 Kg/m3, which is slightly heavier than Carbon Steel. The average Density of Carbon Steel is 7850 Kg/m3, which is less than stainless steel.
Co-Efficient of Linear Thermal Expansion Depending on grade, the coefficient varies in the range of (10-17.3) X10-6 m/ (m °C). The expansion coefficient of Stainless Steel is comparatively more than that of Carbon Steel. The thermal expansion coefficient for carbon steel varies in the range of (10.8 – 12.5) X 10-6 m/ (m °C). This is generally less than stainless steel.

Carbon Steel

Carbon steel products utilize the most basic form of steel available. The added carbon (up to 2.1%) to the alloy material increases hardness while decreasing ductility. Typically, the percentage of carbon in this steel is much higher than in stainless steel, mainly defining how the metal behaves. Any other alloying elements — such as manganese, tungsten, or chromium — have a more negligible effect on the carbon steel’s overall properties.

Carbon Steel Applications

Carbon steel makes up around 90% of today’s steel production, and the construction industry uses about a quarter of the world's steel for manufacturing purposes. Since it’s susceptible to corrosion, carbon steel needs to be galvanized for outdoor use. It’s also not nearly as attractive as stainless steel, with a dull, uninspiring finish. Overall, the higher carbon content increases the metal’s durability, heat distribution, and malleability, lowering its melting point. Carbon steel is commonly used in the following applications:
  • Construction (roads, railways, buildings, infrastructure)
  • Playground equipment
  • Automobile parts
  • Structural beams
  • Knives
  • Steel wires
  • Appliances

Stainless Steel

On a superficial level, stainless steel is an attractive metal with a lustrous and reflective finish easy on the eyes. This is due to the low percentage of carbon (less than 1.2%) and high percentage of chromium (over 10.5%) in the alloy, which changes its appearance and helps to prevent corrosion. Unlike carbon steel, stainless steel has a chromium oxide coating that protects against rust and stains. Some stainless steel alloys are even resistant to sulfuric or phosphoric acid.

Stainless Steel Applications

Stainless steel is generally used for applications that require high strength and advanced corrosion resistance. Unlike carbon steel, stainless steel isn't prone to corrosion, rusting, or staining when exposed to water. These characteristics allow stainless steel to be used for a wide range of applications, including:
  • stainless Medical instruments
  • Handrails
  • Hot water tanks
  • Surgical implants
  • Architectural construction
  • Appliance Finishes
  • Food production & storage

Is Stainless Steel Heavier Than Regular Steel?

Stainless steel is heavier and has a lower strength-to-weight ratio than both carbon steel and aluminum, which makes it unsuitable for aviation or aerospace applications where decreased weight is a must. Carbon steel’s decreased weight allows it to be used for applications that do not require enhanced corrosion resistance.

Stainless Steel vs Carbon Steel: Which Should you Choose?

The steel material that you need will depend exclusively on your project specifications and what qualities are the most important. If corrosion resistance and aesthetic appeal are the qualities of the greatest importance, than stainless steel would be the best option. However, if increased hardness and lower weight are valued over aesthetics and corrosion protection, than carbon steel may be the best option.

Contact IMS for Premium Carbon & Stainless Steel Products Today
Contact us for more information regarding our high-quality carbon and stainless steel product options or request a quote for detailed pricing information today. IMS is your trusted source for premium carbon and stainless steel materials.
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