Stainless steels are chromium containing steel alloys. The minimum chromium content of the standardised stainless steels is 11%. Chromium makes the steel 'stainless' this means improved corrosion resistance.
The better corrosion resistance is due to a chromium oxide film that is formed on the steel surface. This extremely thin layer, under the right conditions, is also self-repairing.
Besides chromium, typical alloying elements are molybdenum, nickel and nitrogen. Nickel is mostly alloyed to improve the formability and ductility of stainless steel. Alloying these elements brings out different crystal structures to enable different properties in machining, forming, welding etc.
The four major types of stainless steel are:
Austenitic is the most widely used type of stainless steel and still represents 80% of the world market. It has a nickel content of at least of 7%, which makes the steel structure fully austenitic and gives it ductility, a large scale of service temperature, non-magnetic properties and good weldability. The range of applications of austenitic stainless steel includes housewares, containers, industrial piping and vessels, architectural facades and constructional structures.
Ferritic stainless steel has properties similar to mild steel but with the better corrosion resistance. The most common of these steels are 12% and 17% chromium containing steels, with 12% used mostly in structural applications and 17% in housewares, boilers, washing machines and indoor architecture.
Austenitic-Ferritic (Duplex) stainless steel has a ferritic and austenitic lattice structure - hence common name: duplex stainless steel. This steel has some nickel content for a partially austenitic lattice structure. The duplex structure delivers both strength and ductility. Duplex steels are mostly used in petrochemical, paper, pulp and shipbuilding industries.
Martensitic stainless steel contains mostly 11 to 13% chromium and is both strong and hard with moderate corrosion resistance. This steel is mostly used in turbine blades and in knives.
Source: CRU and Outokumpu Stainless OY