Aluminum and steel are both resilient metals with unique properties that benefit a wide variety of industrial applications. Deciding which to use requires an understanding of the steel vs. aluminum debate and the characteristics of these metals.
The experts here at JSI Metal Fabrication have put together this guide to walk you through the facts on the differences between aluminum and steel. Explore answers to common questions like whether aluminum is stronger than steel and where each of these metals performs best.
What Is Steel?
Steel is a metal alloy comprising iron, carbon and other elements, including manganese, tungsten, phosphorous and sulfur. Steel is hard, very strong and ductile, but it’s not completely resistant to corrosion unless the alloy includes a minimum of 11% chromium, which makes it stainless steel.
A few common types of steel include:
- Carbon steel
- Alloy steel
- Stainless steel
- Tool steel
What Is Aluminum?
Naturally occurring aluminum is a lightweight, durable and malleable metal that takes on a shine when machined. It’s resistant to corrosion because it rapidly forms its own protective oxide layer when exposed to air. It’s also an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and it’s incredibly strong for its weight.
The Differences Between Steel and Aluminum
Aluminum and steel have a few distinct differences that determine which will work better for a given purpose:
- Strength and weight: Steel is typically stronger than aluminum because of its carbon content. Though softer, aluminum is roughly 1/3 the weight of steel, making it excellent for aircraft manufacturing and other work where weight is a critical factor.
- Corrosion resistance: Aluminum has a high resistance to corrosion because of its oxide layer. Carbon steel, however, requires that users apply a finish to prevent rust. Stainless steel is inherently corrosion-resistant.
- Thermal and electrical conductivity: Aluminum is an outstanding conductor of both heat and electricity, so it works well in applications ranging from car radiators to high-voltage power lines. Meanwhile, steel is a poor conductor compared to many other metals.
- Workability: Aluminum is relatively soft and therefore easy to cut and form into shapes, while steel resists wear and abrasion. This makes steel harder to work but affords it greater longevity.
- Applications: Steel is an ideal solution for infrastructure solutions like railways and excels in uses like heavy equipment components. Aluminum works well for everything from utensils to electric transmission lines.
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