Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon and other elements. Because of its high tensile strength and low cost, it is a major component used in buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, automobiles, machines, appliances, and weapons.
Iron is the base metal of steel. Iron is able to take on two crystalline forms, body centered cubic and face centered cubic, depending on its temperature. In the body-centred cubic arrangement, there is an iron atom in the centre of each cube, and in the face-centred cubic, there is one at the center of each of the six faces of the cube. It is the interaction of the allotropes of iron with the alloying elements, primarily carbon, that gives steel and cast iron their range of unique properties.
In pure iron, the crystal structure has relatively little resistance to the iron atoms slipping past one another, and so pure iron is quite ductile, or soft and easily formed. In steel, small amounts of carbon, other elements, and inclusions within the iron act as hardening agents that prevent the movement of dislocations that are common in the crystal lattices of iron atoms.
The carbon in typical steel alloys may contribute up to 2.14% of its weight.
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