Steel is a hard silver-grey alloy. Steel forms when iron is blended with a small amount of carbon (less than 2%) and trace amounts of manganese, sulphur, silicon, phosphorus, and oxygen. Steel is known as the world's greatest alloy and the most important material used in construction and engineering.
For centuries, several nations tried to invent an iron alloy to make stronger weapons. All attempts either ended in failure or produced alloys that were too weak. But around 400 BC, India became the first country to create steel.
Their blacksmiths managed to blend the perfect amount of carbon with iron. They added tiny wrought iron bars and charcoal inside a crucible, sealed it and placed the container inside a furnace. The temperature was raised by bellows until the iron melted and absorbed the charcoal's carbon, producing pure ingots of steel.
After the discovery of steel, it was mostly used in the production of weapons. Syrian smiths obtained steel from India to create their legendary "Damascus steel" blades. India exported to Spain as well where steel was used to make swords for Roman soldiers. In Rome, the metal was also used to forge simple tools and construction aids.
After the fall of Rome in 476 AD, Spanish smiths began to produce their own steel from furnaces and used the metal not just for weapons but also horseshoes, doorknobs, and suits of armor. But while India continued to make high-quality steel and Spain's ideas for the metal became more varied, one of the most breathtaking achievements came from Japan. Roughly around the 13th century, Japanese smiths made arms for samurai warriors. They rolled steel in a masterful way and created what would become the best swords in the world.
Steel is a hard metal with a silver-grey surface. Steel have different properties based on how it was made. For example, steel can be both brittle or ductile depending on its chemical composition. Its density also varies but normally falls between 7,750 and 8,050 kg/m3.
The physical properties that make steel so popular in construction are low weight, great strength, resistance to corrosion, durability, and ductility.
Steel is stable when it comes into contact with oxygen in the air. Steel that is not the stainless variety reacts to oxygen in water. It forms a layer of iron oxide/hydroxide (rust) that becomes progressively more damaging. Acids also speed up the rusting process. Stainless steel contains elements that resist rust, most notably chromium.
Steel is safe to handle and non-toxic to the skin. For people with metal allergies who want to wear jewellery, a good choice is nickel-free stainless steel or surgical-grade stainless steel.
Stainless steel cookware is generally considered as safe but should be avoided by those with chromium or nickel allergies (both are released during cooking). Damaged stainless steel cookware could be more hazardous as they release more nickel and chromium than is safe in the long run.
Another hazardous aspect of the metal can be seen in steel production. While steel itself does not seem to harm workers, the processes of creation and the environment in which people work present several dangers. Examples involve exposure to asbestos, hearing loss, accidents, developing skin problems or cancer, burns, and breathing toxic fumes.
Steel does not appear in nature its true form. Among the most important raw materials to make steel is iron ore. Iron is the fourth most abundant metal, accounting for about 5.6% of the Earth's crust. Countries that actively extract the most iron ores are Australia, Brazil, China, and India.
Steel is a versatile metal with valuable commercial applications. The metal is mainly used in seven sectors.
The alloy is so essential in the building industry that almost half of all the steel produced every year goes to the construction business. Roughly 44% is used in reinforcing bars, 31% are found in steel sheets for walls and roofs, and structural sections represent 25%. Other uses in construction and infrastructure include shelving, rails, stairs, and bridges.
This sector is the second-largest consumer of steel. The alloy is used in countless products, ranging from small tools to bulldozers and cranes.
Steel is an essential component of cars. About 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) is needed to make one vehicle.
This sector also branches out into different fields. The food industry uses steel in packaging while home industries produce steel-containing products like razor blades, furniture, and cookware.
Steel plays a critical role in transport besides cars. Ships with steel hulls carry 90% of the world's cargo and nearly all of the 17 million shipping containers they transport are also made of steel. The alloy is also used in the train industry to create bearings, motors, axles, and wheels. In the aviation world, steel is the preferred material for landing gear and engines.
Steel is a mainstay in the creation of domestic appliances. The metal is used in the bodies and often the motors of home devices. Some examples include refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, and microwave ovens.
Steel also plays an important role in the creation and distribution of power. It can be found in cables, electric motors, generators and the magnetic cores of transformers.
To obtain steel, an alloy is created between iron and roughly 2% carbon. Unlike other metals, which are mined from the earth, the production of steel happens mostly in steel mills. The alloy is created by using either the Blast Furnace or Electric Arc Furnace process. Steel is also produced by recycling scrap metal.
After production, steel is commonly offered to buyers as hot rolled plates, rolled coil products, flat sheets, and semi-finished products.
The largest producer of steel in 2020 was the China Baowu Group who created an estimated 115.29 million metric tons. The global crude steel production in 2020 was more than 1.86 billion metric tons.
Steel is a versatile alloy that remains valuable due to its demand in different commercial markets. Steel plays an important part in nearly every aspect of life including essential areas like infrastructure, the car industry, energy, and machinery. Due to this diversity, the steel price reflects the state of the world's economic strength.
Steel is traded in two ways. The alloy is physically traded as crude material. When physically traded, especially in the USA, steel products are commonly sold by the ton.
The second option involves investing in the global steel market. The latter offers futures contracts, shares, steel ETFs, and publically traded companies. Another way steel is traded is through private contracts or "over the counter" transactions.
There are five main drivers that influence the global steel market's prices. They include the Chinese economy, demand from the world's infrastructure sector, demand from the transportation sector, input prices and substation costs.
The most influential factor might be China. The country consumes nearly half of all the steel that is produced every year. On the positive side, when the country's infrastructure grows it leads to a healthy steel demand but China also exports steel. The latter can have a negative effect on steel prices when construction growth slows and Chinese steel floods the global steel markets with cheap metal that leads to depressed steel prices.
Steel prices rose to all time highs in 2021 with hot rolled steel exceeding $1,800 USD per tonne and steel rebar exceeeding $900 USD/t. The increase correlated with decreased production and increased consumer demand related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Steel mills shut down to prevent infections among workers while people in quarantine turned to home renovations, pushing up the demand for items that contain steel.
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