These daggers are an example of the kind of superior weaponry that Iron Age civilizations were able to craft.

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How Iron and Steel Work

If you were to follow humanity’s genetic trail back through the millennia, you’d find primitive creatures fumbling for a foothold on a primeval Earth. Lacking the natural, physical advantages of other animals, it’s a marvel humans were able to claw their way out of the Cenozoic era at all. Of course, Homo sapiens had one advantage over all the other animals: the ability to make and use tools. While they lacked a lion’s teeth and claws or a deer’s defensive antlers, they learned to craft their own weapons from the world around them.

The oldest known tools date back 2.6 million years, to a time when humans used shaped stone to carry out a variety of tasks. After all, a sharpened rock can potentially slice, stab, scrape, pound and bludgeon. In time, humans began to specialize their tools, creating everything from arrowheads to pestles for grinding grain. Yet stone is a brittle, inflexible medium. Eventually, they were able to pinpoint more durable and malleable elements and their alloys: first copper, then bronze and iron. Instead of flaking or fracturing under blunt force, they proved malleable.

If you had to name the technologies that had the greatest effect on modern society, the refining of the heavy metal element iron would have to be near the top. Iron makes up a huge array of modern products. especially carbon-rich, commercial iron, which we call steel. Cars, tractors, bridges, trains (and their rails), tools, skyscrapers, guns and ships all depend on iron and steel to make them strong. Iron is so important that primitive societies are measured by the point at which they learn how to refine it. This is where the “Iron Age” classification comes from.

­Have you ever wondered how people refine iron and steel? You’ve probably heard ­of iron ore, but how do we turn a slab of rock into a set of stainless steel surgical instruments or a locomotive? In this article, you’ll learn all about iron and steel.

A skilled blacksmith can work heated iron into just about any shape imaginable.

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The Advantages of Iron

­Iron is an incredibly useful substance. It’s less brittle than stone yet, compared to wood or copper, extremely strong. If properly heated, iron is also relatively easy to shape into various forms, as well as refine, using simple tools. And speaking of those tools, unlike wood, iron can handle high temperatures, allowing us to build everything from fire tongs to furnaces out of it. In contrast to most substances, you can also magnetize iron, making it useful in the creation of electric motors and generators. Finally, there certainly aren’t any iron shortages to worry about. The Earth’s crust is 5 percent iron, and in some areas, the element concentrates in ores that contain as much as 70 percent iron.

When you compare iron and steel with something like aluminum, you can see why it was so important historically. To refine aluminum, you need access to huge quantities of electricity. Furthermore, to shape aluminum, you have to either cast it or extrude it. Iron, however, is much easier to manipulate. The element has been useful to people for thousands of years, while aluminum really didn’t exist in any meaningful way until the 20th century.

­Fortunately, iron can be created relatively easily with tools that were available to primitive societies. There will likely come a day when humans become so technologically advanced that iron is completely replaced by aluminum, plastics and things like carbon and glass fibers. But right now, the economic equation gives inexpensive iron and steel a huge advantage over these much more expensive alternatives.

The only real problem with iron and steel is rust. Fortunately, you can control rust by painting, galvanizing, chrome plating or coating the iron with a sacrificial anode, which corrodes faster than the stronger metal. Think of this last option as hiring a bodyguard to take a bullet for the president. The more active metal has to almost completely corrode before the less active iron or steel begins the process.

­Humans have come up with countless uses for iron, from carpentry tools and culinary equipment to complicated machinery and instruments of torture. Before iron can be put to any of these uses, however, it has to be mined from the ground.

It may not look like much, but this lump of iron ore is the starting point of everything from precision surgical equipment to reinforced skyscrapers.

Iron Ore

­Before many ancient civilizations began to transition from their bronze age to an iron age, some toolmakers were already creating iron implements from a cosmic source: meteorites. Called ‘black copper” by the Egyptians, meteoric iron isn’t the sort of substance one finds in huge, consolidated locations. Rather, craftsmen found bits and pieces of it spread across great distances. As such, this heavenly metal was mostly used in jewelry and ornamentation. While blacksmiths occasionally used meteoric iron to craft swords, these prized weapons were usually relegated to men of great power, such as the seventh century Caliphs, whose blades were said to have been forged from the same material as the Holy Black Stone of Mecca [source: Rickard].

The majority of Earth’s iron, however, exists in iron ore. Mined right out of the ground, raw ore is mix of ore proper and loose earth called gangue. The ore proper can usually be separated by crushing the raw ore and simply washing away the lighter soil. Breaking down the ore proper is more difficult, however, as it is a chemical compound of carbonates, hydrates, oxides, silicates, sulfides and various impurities.

To get to the bits of iron in the ore, you have to smelt it out. Smelting involves heating up ore until the metal becomes spongy and the chemical compounds in the ore begin to break down. Most important, it releases oxygen from the iron ore, which makes up a high percentage of common iron ores.

The most primitive facility used to smelt iron is a bloomery. There, a blacksmith burns charcoal with iron ore and a good supply of oxygen (provided by a bellows or blower). Charcoal is essentially pure carbon. The carbon combines with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (releasing lots of heat in the process). Carbon and carbon monoxide combine with the oxygen in the iron ore and carry it away, leaving iron metal.

In a bloomery, the fire doesn’t get hot enough to melt the iron completely. Instead, the iron heats up into a spongy mass containing iron and silicates from the ore. Heating and hammering this mass (called the bloom) forces impurities out and mixes the glassy silicates into the iron metal to create wrought iron. Wrought iron is hardy and easy to work, making it perfect for creating tools.

Tool and weapon makers learned to smelt copper long before iron became the dominant metal. Archeological evidence suggests that blacksmiths in the Middle East were smelting iron as early as 2500 B.C., though it would be more than a thousand years before iron became the dominant metal in the region.

­To create higher qualities of iron, blacksmiths would require better furnaces. The technology gradually developed over the centuries. By the mid-1300s, taller furnaces and manually operated bellows allowed European furnaces to burn hot enough to not just soften iron, but actually melt it.

A worker covers the steel slag poured on the ground with sandy soil at a stainless steel factory.

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Creating Iron

­The more advanced way to smelt iron is in a blast furnace. A blast furnace is charged with iron ore, charcoal or coke (coke is charcoal made from coal) and limestone (CaCO3­). Huge quantities of air blast in at the bottom of the furnace, and the calcium in the limestone combines with the silicates to form slag. Liquid iron collects at the bottom of the blast furnace, underneath a layer of slag. The blacksmith periodically lets the liquid iron flow out and cool.

At this point, the liquid iron typically flows through a channel and into a bed of sand. Once it cools, this metal is known as pig iron. To create a ton of pig iron, you start with 2 tons (1.8 metric tons) of ore, 1 ton of coke (0.9 metric tons) and a half ton (0.45 metric tons) of limestone. The fire consumes 5 tons (4.5 metric tons) of air. The temperature at the core of the blast furnace reaches nearly 3,000 degrees F (about 1,600 degrees C).

­Pig iron contains 4 to 5 percent carbon and is so hard and brittle that it’s almost useless. If you want to do anything with it, you have three options. First, you can melt it, mix it with slag and hammer it out to eliminate most of the carbon (down to 0.3 percent) and create strong, malleable wrought iron. The second option is to melt the pig iron and combine it with scrap iron, smelt out impurities and add alloys to form cast iron. This metal contains 2 to 4 percent carbon, along with quantities of silicon, manganese and trace impurities. Cast iron, as the name implies, is typically cast into molds to form a wide variety of parts and products.

­The third opt­ion for pig iron is to push the refining process even further and create steel, which we’ll examine on the next page.

A ladle filled with molten iron approaches a blast furnace that will convert it to liquid steel.

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Creating Steel

­Steel is iron that has most of the impurities removed. Steel also has a consistent concentration of carbon throughout (0.5 to 1.5 percent). Impurities like silica, phosphorous and sulfur weaken steel tremendously, so they must be eliminated. The advantage of steel over iron is greatly improved strength.

The open-hearth furnace is one way to create steel from pig iron. The pig iron, limestone and iron ore go into an open-hearth furnace. It is heated to about 1,600 degrees F (871 degrees C). The limestone and ore form a slag that floats on the surface. Impurities, including carbon, are oxidized and float out of the iron into the slag. When the carbon content is right, you have carbon steel.

Another way to create steel from pig iron is the Bessemer process, which involves the oxidation of the impurities in the pig iron by blowing air through the molten iron in a Bessemer converter. The heat of oxidation raises the temperature and keeps the iron molten. As the air passes through the molten pig iron, impurities unite with the oxygen to form oxides. Carbon monoxide burns off and the other impurities form slag.

However, most modern steel plants use what’s called a basic oxygen furnace to create steel. The advantage is speed, as the process is roughly 10 times faster than the open-hearth furnace. In these furnaces, high-purity oxygen blows through the molten pig iron, lowering carbon, silicon, manganese and phosphorous levels. The addition of chemical cleaning agents called fluxes help to reduce the sulfur and phosphorous levels.

A variety of metals might be alloyed with the steel at this point to create different properties. For example, the addition of 10 to 30 percent chromium creates stainless steel, which is very resistant to rust. The addition of chromium and molybdenum creates chrome-moly steel, which is strong and light.

When you think about it, there are two accidents of nature that have made it much easier for human technology to advance and flourish. One is the huge availability of iron ore. The second is the accessibility of vast quantities of oil and coal to power the production of iron. Without iron and energy, we probably would not have gotten nearly as far as we have today.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about iron and steel.

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