Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel – Comparison – Pros and Cons

Carbon Steel

Carbon steels are iron–carbon alloys that may contain appreciable concentrations of other alloying elements. Plain carbon steels are iron-carbon alloys in which the properties are primarily derived from the presence of carbon. Some incidental elements like manganese, silicon, sulphur and phosphorus are present in small amounts due to the method of making steels and, not to modify the mechanical properties. Adding a small amount of non-metallic carbon to iron trades its great ductility for the greater strength. Due to its very-high strength, but still substantial toughness, and its ability to be greatly altered by heat treatment, steel is one of the most useful and common ferrous alloy in modern use. There are thousands of alloys that have different compositions and/or heat treatments. The mechanical properties are sensitive to the content of carbon, which is normally less than 1.0 wt%. According ot AISI classification, carbon steel is broken down into four classes based on carbon content:

  • Low-carbon Steels. Low-carbon steel, also known as mild steel is now the most common form of steel because its price is relatively low while it provides material properties that are acceptable for many applications. Low-carbon steel contains approximately 0.05–0.25% carbon making it malleable and ductile. Mild steel has a relatively low tensile strength, but it is cheap and easy to form; surface hardness can be increased through carburizing.
  • Medium-carbon Steels. Medium-carbon steel has approximately 0.3–0.6% carbon content. Balances ductility and strength and has good wear resistance. This grade of steel is mostly used in the production of machine components, shafts, axles, gears, crankshafts, coupling and forgings and could also be used in rails and railway wheels.
  • High-carbon Steels. High-carbon steel has approximately 0.60 to 1.00% carbon content. Hardness is higher than the other grades but ductility decreases. High carbon steels could be used for springs, rope wires, hammers, screwdrivers, and wrenches.
  • Ultra-high-carbon Steel. Ultra-high-carbon steel has approximately 1.25–2.0% carbon content. Steels that can be tempered to great hardness. This grade of steel could be used for hard steel products, such as truck springs, metal cutting tools and other special purposes like (non-industrial-purpose) knives, axles or punches. Most steels with more than 2.5% carbon content are made using powder metallurgy.

Carbon steels

Alloy Steels

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, but the term alloy steel usually only refers to steels that contain other elements— like vanadium, molybdenum, or cobalt—in amounts sufficient to alter the properties of the base steel. In general, alloy steel is steel that is alloyed with a variety of elements in total amounts between 1.0% and 50% by weight to improve its mechanical properties. Stainless steels are specific group of high-alloy steels, that contain a minimum of 11% chromium content by mass and a maximum of 1.2% carbon by mass. Alloy steels are broken down into two groups:

  • Low-alloy steelsLow-alloy Steels. Low-alloy steels constitute a category of ferrous materials that exhibit mechanical properties superior to plain carbon steels resulting from additions of such alloying elements as nickel, chromium, and molybdenum, manganese, and silicon. The role of the alloying elements is to increase hardenability in order to optimize mechanical properties and toughness after heat treatment. In some cases, however, alloy additions are used to reduce environmental degradation under certain specified service conditions.
  • High-alloy Steels. Steels with alloying greater than 5 wt% are typically classified as high-alloy steel. Stainless steels are the major types of high-alloy steels, but two other types are ultrahigh-strength nickel-cobalt steels and maraging steels. Stainless steels are defined as low-carbon high-alloy steels with at least 10.5% chromium with or without other alloying elements.

41xx steel – Chromoly Steel – Medium-carbon Ultrahigh-strength Steels

Chromoly steel is medium-carbon ultrahigh-strength low alloy steel that gets its name from a combination of the words “chromium” and “molybdenum” – two of the major alloying elements. Chromoly steel is often used when more strength is required than that of mild carbon steel, though it often comes at an increase in cost. Chromoly falls under the AISI 41xx steel designations (ASTM A519). Examples of applications for 4130, 4140 and 4145 include structural tubing, bicycle frames, crank shafts, chain links, drill collars, gas bottles for transportation of pressurized gases, firearm parts, clutch and flywheel components, and roll cages.

Chromoly steel

Properties of Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel

Material properties are intensive properties, that means they are independent of the amount of mass and may vary from place to place within the system at any moment. The basis of materials science involves studying the structure of materials, and relating them to their properties (mechanical, electrical etc.). Once a materials scientist knows about this structure-property correlation, they can then go on to study the relative performance of a material in a given application. The major determinants of the structure of a material and thus of its properties are its constituent chemical elements and the way in which it has been processed into its final form.

Density of Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel

Density of typical steel is 8.05 g/cm3.

Density of typical alloy steel is 7.85 g/cm3. (4150 Chromoly)

Density is defined as the mass per unit volume. It is an intensive property, which is mathematically defined as mass divided by volume:

ρ = m/V

In words, the density (ρ) of a substance is the total mass (m) of that substance divided by the total volume (V) occupied by that substance. The standard SI unit is kilograms per cubic meter (kg/m3). The Standard English unit is pounds mass per cubic foot (lbm/ft3).

Since the density (ρ) of a substance is the total mass (m) of that substance divided by the total volume (V) occupied by that substance, it is obvious, the density of a substance strongly depends on its atomic mass and also on the atomic number density (N; atoms/cm3),

  • Atomic Weight. The atomic mass is carried by the atomic nucleus, which occupies only about 10-12 of the total volume of the atom or less, but it contains all the positive charge and at least 99.95% of the total mass of the atom. Therefore it is determined by the mass number (number of protons and neutrons).
  • Atomic Number Density. The atomic number density (N; atoms/cm3), which is associated with atomic radii, is the number of atoms of a given type per unit volume (V; cm3) of the material. The atomic number density (N; atoms/cm3) of a pure material having atomic or molecular weight (M; grams/mol) and the material density (⍴; gram/cm3) is easily computed from the following equation using Avogadro’s number (NA = 6.022×1023 atoms or molecules per mole):Atomic Number Density
  • Crystal Structure. Density of crystalline substance is significantly affected by its crystal structure. FCC structure, along with its hexagonal relative (hcp), has the most efficient packing factor (74%). Metals containing FCC structures include austenite, aluminum, copper, lead, silver, gold, nickel, platinum, and thorium.

Mechanical Properties of Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel

Materials are frequently chosen for various applications because they have desirable combinations of mechanical characteristics. For structural applications, material properties are crucial and engineers must take them into account.

Strength of Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel

In mechanics of materials, the strength of a material is its ability to withstand an applied load without failure or plastic deformation. Strength of materials basically considers the relationship between the external loads applied to a material and the resulting deformation or change in material dimensions. Strength of a material is its ability to withstand this applied load without failure or plastic deformation.

Ultimate Tensile Strength

Ultimate tensile strength of low-carbon steel is between 400 – 550 MPa.

Ultimate tensile strength of ultra-high-carbon steel is 1100 MPa.

Ultimate tensile strength of 41xx steel – chromoly steel depends on certain grade, but it is about 700 MPa.

Yield Strength - Ultimate Tensile Strength - Table of MaterialsThe ultimate tensile strength is the maximum on the engineering stress-strain curve. This corresponds to the maximum stress that can be sustained by a structure in tension. Ultimate tensile strength is often shortened to “tensile strength” or even to “the ultimate.”  If this stress is applied and maintained, fracture will result. Often, this value is significantly more than the yield stress (as much as 50 to 60 percent more than the yield for some types of metals). When a ductile material reaches its ultimate strength, it experiences necking where the cross-sectional area reduces locally. The stress-strain curve contains no higher stress than the ultimate strength. Even though deformations can continue to increase, the stress usually decreases after the ultimate strength has been achieved. It is an intensive property; therefore its value does not depend on the size of the test specimen. However, it is dependent on other factors, such as the preparation of the specimen, the presence or otherwise of surface defects, and the temperature of the test environment and material. Ultimate tensile strengths vary from 50 MPa for an aluminum to as high as 3000 MPa for very high-strength steels.

Yield Strength

Yield strength of low-carbon steel is 250 MPa.

Yield strength of ultra-high-carbon steel is 800 MPa.

Yield strength of 41xx steel – chromoly steel depends on certain grade, but it is about 500 MPa.

The yield point is the point on a stress-strain curve that indicates the limit of elastic behavior and the beginning plastic behavior. Yield strength or yield stress is the material property defined as the stress at which a material begins to deform plastically whereas yield point is the point where nonlinear (elastic + plastic) deformation begins. Prior to the yield point, the material will deform elastically and will return to its original shape when the applied stress is removed. Once the yield point is passed, some fraction of the deformation will be permanent and non-reversible. Some steels and other materials exhibit a behaviour termed a yield point phenomenon. Yield strengths vary from 35 MPa for a low-strength aluminum to greater than 1400 MPa for very high-strength steels.

Young’s Modulus of Elasticity

Young’s modulus of elasticity of low-carbon steel is 200 GPa.

Young’s modulus of elasticity 41xx steel – chromoly steel is 205 GPa.

The Young’s modulus of elasticity is the elastic modulus for tensile and compressive stress in the linear elasticity regime of a uniaxial deformation and is usually assessed by tensile tests. Up to a limiting stress, a body will be able to recover its dimensions on removal of the load. The applied stresses cause the atoms in a crystal to move from their equilibrium position. All the atoms are displaced the same amount and still maintain their relative geometry. When the stresses are removed, all the atoms return to their original positions and no permanent deformation occurs. According to the Hooke’s law, the stress is proportional to the strain (in the elastic region), and the slope is Young’s modulus. Young’s modulus is equal to the longitudinal stress divided by the strain.

Hardness of Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel

Brinell hardness of low-carbon steel is approximately 120 MPa.

Brinell hardness of high-carbon steel is approximately 200 MPa.

Brinell hardness of 41xx steel – chromoly steel is approximately 200 MPa.

Brinell hardness number

Rockwell hardness test is one of the most common indentation hardness tests, that has been developed for hardness testing. In contrast to Brinell test, the Rockwell tester measures the depth of penetration of an indenter under a large load (major load) compared to the penetration made by a preload (minor load). The minor load establishes the zero position. The major load is applied, then removed while still maintaining the minor load. The difference between depth of penetration before and after application of the major load is used to calculate the Rockwell hardness number. That is, the penetration depth and hardness are inversely proportional. The chief advantage of Rockwell hardness is its ability to display hardness values directly. The result is a dimensionless number noted as HRA, HRB, HRC, etc., where the last letter is the respective Rockwell scale.

The Rockwell C test is performed with a Brale penetrator (120°diamond cone) and a major load of 150kg.

Thermal Properties of Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel

Thermal properties of materials refer to the response of materials to changes in their temperature and to the application of heat. As a solid absorbs energy in the form of heat, its temperature rises and its dimensions increase. But different materials react to the application of heat differently.

Heat capacity, thermal expansion, and thermal conductivity are properties that are often critical in the practical use of solids.

Melting Point of Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel

Melting point of low-carbon steel is around 1450°C.

Melting point of 41xx steel – chromoly steel is around 1427°C.

In general, melting is a phase change of a substance from the solid to the liquid phase. The melting point of a substance is the temperature at which this phase change occurs. The melting point also defines a condition in which the solid and liquid can exist in equilibrium.

Thermal Conductivity of Carbon Steel vs Alloy Steel

The thermal conductivity of typical steel is 20 W/(m.K).

The thermal conductivity of 41xx steel – chromoly steel is around 41 W/(m.K).

The heat transfer characteristics of a solid material are measured by a property called the thermal conductivity, k (or λ), measured in W/m.K. It is a measure of a substance’s ability to transfer heat through a material by conduction. Note that Fourier’s law applies for all matter, regardless of its state (solid, liquid, or gas), therefore, it is also defined for liquids and gases.

The thermal conductivity of most liquids and solids varies with temperature. For vapors, it also depends upon pressure. In general:

thermal conductivity - definition

Most materials are very nearly homogeneous, therefore we can usually write k = k (T). Similar definitions are associated with thermal conductivities in the y- and z-directions (ky, kz), but for an isotropic material the thermal conductivity is independent of the direction of transfer, kx = ky = kz = k.

References:
Materials Science:

U.S. Department of Energy, Material Science. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
U.S. Department of Energy, Material Science. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 2 and 2. January 1993.
William D. Callister, David G. Rethwisch. Materials Science and Engineering: An Introduction 9th Edition, Wiley; 9 edition (December 4, 2013), ISBN-13: 978-1118324578.
Eberhart, Mark (2003). Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart. Harmony. ISBN 978-1-4000-4760-4.
Gaskell, David R. (1995). Introduction to the Thermodynamics of Materials (4th ed.). Taylor and Francis Publishing. ISBN 978-1-56032-992-3.
González-Viñas, W. & Mancini, H.L. (2004). An Introduction to Materials Science. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-07097-1.
Ashby, Michael; Hugh Shercliff; David Cebon (2007). Materials: engineering, science, processing and design (1st ed.). Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-7506-8391-3.
J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.

See above:
Alloys