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What is a Metal Alloy?

What is a Metal Alloy

You’ve likely heard of the term alloy, but what exactly does that mean? Metal alloys are used everywhere. From the tiny screws that hold eyeglasses together, to the frame of a skyscraper. Parts of the phone or computer you’re reading this on are metal alloys.

Most of the metal parts and structures you see are metal alloys.

In simple terms, a metal alloy is a specific mixture of metallic and nonmetallic elements. The elements used to make the alloy are melted down into a liquid, mixed together, and then cooled to resolidify. This process is sometimes called alloyization.

Why are metal alloys used?

You’re probably familiar with most of the metallic elements in the periodic table. Metals like aluminum, iron, copper, gold, and titanium are naturally occurring elements. You might be surprised to learn that the majority of the elements are classified as metals.

Metal, Metalloid, & Non-Metal Elements

Not every element is naturally occurring, but for the ones that are, you can dig them up from the ground, and process them into metal bars or plates.

Alloys are used because in most cases, a pure, single metallic element isn’t ideal for parts or building structures.

Adding other metal or nonmetal elements improves specific properties of the alloy. The strength, durability, color, flexibility, machinability, and corrosion resistance can all be significantly improved.

For example, adding a small amount of lead or sulfur to alloys improves the machinability of metals. And adding carbon increases hardness, but decreases machinability.

Because the percentages of the elements used in alloys can be easily adjustable, there are 100s of different alloys–each having specific pros and cons.

What are the most common metal alloys?

Metal alloys usually have a base metal that makes up the majority of the composition. In addition to the base element, there are common additions. You’ll see numbers that are used to identify the different alloys, like 303 stainless steel, or 2011 aluminum.

Here are a few of the common metal alloys used in precision machining.

Stainless steel alloys

Stainless steel is one of the most commonly used alloys. Stainless steel alloys have an iron base, usually around 25-35%. Another 20-30% of chromium and nickel are added to the iron to improve corrosion resistance and prevent the metal from rusting.

The remainder of stainless steel alloys are made up of 7-10 other elements. Stainless steel alloys can contain smaller amounts of sulfur, silicon, copper, carbon, nitrogen, and manganese. These elements can make the alloy harder or softer, improve machinability, and increase the corrosion resistance.

Steel alloys

Steel is another commonly used metal alloy that’s incredibly diverse. Steel alloys are made with 95-99% iron. Surprisingly, pure iron isn’t useful for parts or building materials because it’s soft and brittle. It’s easily bent and malleable, until other elements are added to create a steel alloy.

Adding a small amount of carbon to the iron makes it hard, and usable for durable parts and building materials. But, adding too much carbon makes the alloy more difficult to machine. To improve machinability, elements like sulfur and lead are added.

Aluminum alloys

Pure aluminum is a great material, but it lacks strength and durability needed to make usable parts. To increase the tensile strength, zinc and manganese are added to aluminum alloys. Chromium can also be added to increase the corrosion resistance of the aluminum parts. 

Most aluminum alloys are 85-95% aluminum. This keeps the benefits that aluminum offers–mainly the excellent strength-to-weight ratio.

Copper alloys

Copper is one of the best conductors of electricity and heat. So, pure copper (99%+) is used for electrical wiring. But, copper is soft and flexible, so copper alloys are used for parts that need more strength and durability.

Copper has a wide variety of alloys that include different copper alloys, brass, and bronze. Free machining copper is 97-99% copper, and small amounts of lead, beryllium, cobalt, and/or tellurium.

Brass alloys are a combination of copper, zinc, and lead. The zinc adds hardness and durability to the parts. 

Bronze alloys are a mixture of copper and tin. Bronze is even harder than brass alloys, so it’s used when more durability is needed.

Learn about the difference between copper, brass, and bronze.

Nickel alloys

Nickel is a metal that’s added in smaller amounts to stainless steel alloys. Nickel offers some of the best corrosion resistance. It’s also more expensive than most other metals. Nickel based alloys are often considered super alloys, because of the high corrosion resistance and strength.

Monel is a nickel-copper alloy that contains around 65% nickel and 30% copper. 

Inconel is a nickel-chromium alloy that’s roughly 70% nickel, 15% chromium, and 8% iron.

Hastelloy is a nickel-chromium-molybdenum alloy. It contains 55-60% nickel, 15% chromium, and 15% molybdenum.

Those are some of the most common metal alloys used for precision machined parts. But, the properties of the alloy can be changed by adding 0.2% of a certain element. This makes the combinations and applications of different alloys limitless.

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