Crucible steel describes a number of different techniques for making steel alloy by slowly heating and cooling pure iron and carbon (typically in the form of charcoal) in a crucible.
What is steel?
Key to the formation of any steel is the conversion of iron oxide into iron. Iron is not normally found in its elemental state due to free oxygen in the atmosphere, so some method must be used to remove the oxygen again and return the iron to a pure state. The most basic way to do this is to heat it in the presence of carbon, which will then combine with the oxygen to form carbon dioxide, leaving elementary iron with a high concentration of carbon.
One common source of carbon is charcoal, which happens to be one of the few common fuels that also burns with enough heat to cause the reaction to occur. Simply heating the iron directly leaves the resulting alloy with a very high carbon content, often 4 to 5%. In this condition it is rather brittle, and is not steel but pig iron. Steel has a carbon content of around 1%, so a separate process, steelmaking is required to lower the carbon content. Before modern steelmaking methods, steel was usually produced by the reverse process, adding carbon to low-carbon wrought iron.
The first crucible steel was the wootz steel that originated in India before the beginning of the common era. Archaeological evidence suggests that this manufacturing process was already in existence in South India well before the common era. Wootz steel was widely exported and traded throughout ancient Europe, China, the Arab world, and became particularly famous in the Middle East, where it became known as Damascus steel.
As early as the 17th century, Europeans knew of India's ability to make crucible steel from reports brought back by travelers who had observed the process at several places in southern India. Several attempts were made to import the process, but failed because the exact technique remained a mystery. Studies of wootz were made in an attempt to understand its secrets, including a major effort by the famous scientist, Michael Faraday, son of a blacksmith. Working with a local cutlery manufacturer he wrongly concluded that it was the addition of aluminium oxide and silica from the glass that gave wootz its unique properties.
Nevertheless it was possible to produce quality steel in Europe, by importing the highly valued Swedish iron. Although it was not understood at the time, the Swedish ore contained very low levels of common impurities, leading to higher quality irons and steels from otherwise identical techniques applied to other ores. Swedish bar iron was packed into stone boxes in layers with charcoal in between them and heated in a furnace for an entire week. The result was a bar of metal known as blister steel - the surface of the bars became uneven from a multitude of blisters (or blebs) - which varied in quality from one bar to the next and within each bar. A number of blister rods were then wrapped into a larger bundle and re-heated and hammer-forged to mix together and even out the carbon content, resulting in the final product, shear steel. Germany was particularly well invested in this process, largely due to being physically close to Sweden, and became a major steel exporter in the 18th century. The technique was the cementation process.
English crucible steel
A new technique was developed in England by Benjamin Huntsman, a clockmaker in search of a better steel for clock springs. It was only in 1740 after he moved to Handsworth near Sheffield, and after years of experimenting in secret he perfected his process. Huntsman's system used a coke-fired furnace capable of reaching 1600 °C, into which ten or twelve clay crucibles, each holding about 15 kg of iron, were placed. When the pots are at a white heat they are charged with blister steel broken into lumps of about ½ kg, and a flux to help remove impurities. The pots are removed after about 3 hours in the furnace, impurities skimmed off, and the molten steel poured into ingots. Sheffield's Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet has preserved a water-wheel powered, scythe-making works dating from Huntsman's times, which is still operated for the public, several times per year using crucible steel made on the Abbeydale site.
Before the introduction of Huntsman's technique, Sheffield produced about 200 tonnes of steel per year based on Swedish wrought iron (see Oregrounds iron). The introduction of Huntsman's technique changed this radically; one hundred years later the amount had risen to over 80,000 tonnes per year - almost half of Europe's total production. This discovery enabled Sheffield to develop from a small township into one of Europe's leading industrial cities.
Crucible steel elsewhere
Another form of crucible steel was developed in 1837 by the Russian engineer, Pavel Anosov. His technique relied less on the heating and cooling, and more on the quenching process of rapidly cooling the molten steel when the right crystal structure had formed within. He called his steel bulat; its secret died with him. In the United States crucible steel was pioneered by William Metcalf.
Crucible steels remained the world's best, although very expensive, for some time. The introduction of the Bessemer process and other steelmaking processes gradually replaced it, being able to produce steel of similar (or better) quality on a much larger scale more quickly and cheaply. The Bessemer process and more modern methods differ from crucible steel production in that they remove carbon from the pig iron, but stopping before all the carbon is removed, whereas the ultimate raw material for tradition crucible steel was wrought iron, to which carbon had been added by cementation.
Crucible steel did not disappear when the Bessemer process was introduced. Cast steel is still the preferred method for specialty steel production, especially tool steel. While more expensive than the Bessemer and other later methods of steel production, it is still among the most precise. So rather than disappearing it became a niche market.
1. ^ Srinivasan & Ranganathan
2. ^ a b Srinivasan 1994
3. ^ a b Srinivasan & Griffiths
• Srinivasan,S. Wootz crucible steel: a newly discovered production site in South India. Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 5 (1994), pp. 49-61.
• Srinivasan, S. and Griffiths, D. South Indian wootz: evidence for high-carbon steel from crucibles from a newly identified site and preliminary comparisons with related finds. Material Issues in Art and Archaeology-V, Materials Research Society Symposium Proceedings Series Vol. 462.
• Srinivasan, S. & Ranganathan, S. Wootz Steel: An Advanced Material of the Ancient World. Bangalore: Indian Institute of Science.
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