The Major Applications of Steel

This metal alloy is used for seven major markets, including buildings

Full Frame Shot Of Metal Wall
Fabian Krause / EyeEm / Getty Images

Steel is both the most widely used and most recycled metal material on Earth. From stainless and high-temperature steels to flat carbon products, steel in its various forms and alloys offer different properties to meet a wide range of applications. For these reasons, as well as the metal's combination of high strength and relatively low production cost, steel is now used in countless products.

Steel applications can be divided into seven primary market sectors. The figures are the percentages of steel production dedicated to them, according to the World Steel Association (WSA):

  1. Buildings and infrastructure, 51%
  2. Mechanical equipment, 15%
  3. Automotive, 12%
  4. Metal products, 11%
  5. Other transport, 5%
  6. Domestic appliances, 3%
  7. Electrical equipment, 3%

Total crude steel production in 2019 amounted to 1.87 billion tons, compared with 1.81 billion tons in 2018. Crude steel is the first, unworked steel product made after liquid steel solidifies.

Buildings and Infrastructure

More than half of the steel produced annually is used to construct buildings and infrastructure such as bridges. According to the WSA, most of the steel used in this sector is found in reinforcing bars (44%); sheet products, including those used in roofs, internal walls, and ceilings (31%); and structural sections (25%).

In addition to those structural applications, steel is also used in buildings for HVAC systems and in items such as stairs, rails, and shelving.

The 10-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago was the first skyscraper in the world to be constructed with a steel frame. It was completed in 1885.

Steel of various types can be designed to meet the unique requirements of individual infrastructure projects, allowing it to be incorporated into components in all kinds of environments. Depending on the conditions that the structure is exposed to, either a particular steel alloy or a surface treatment can be used.

Besides bridges, applications for steel in transportation-related infrastructure include tunnels, rail track, fueling stations, train stations, ports, and airports. The WSA says approximately 60% of steel use in this area is as rebar, a ridged steel bar placed inside reinforced concrete.

Steel is also widely used in utility infrastructure, including for fuels, water, and, electricity. The WSA states that half of the steel used for utility infrastructure is in the form of underground pipes for water or natural gas.

Rail tracks typically last 30-35 years, according to the WSA.

Mechanical Equipment

This second-greatest use of steel includes (among many other things) bulldozers, tractors, machinery that makes car parts, cranes, and hand tools such as hammers and shovels. It also includes the rolling mills that are used to shape steel into various shapes and thicknesses.

Automotive

On average, almost 2,000 pounds, or 900 kilograms, of steel is used to make a car, according to the WSA. About a third of that is used in the body structure and exterior, including the doors. Another 23% is in the drive train, and 12% is in the suspension.

Advanced high-strength steels, which are made using complex processes and are lighter in weight than traditional steels, account for about 60% of a modern car's body structures.

Metal Products

This market sector includes various consumer products such as furniture, packaging for food and drinks, and razors.

Foods packaged in steel cans don't need to be refrigerated.

Other Transport

Steel is used in ships, trains and train cars, and parts of planes. Hulls of large ships are almost all made of steel, and steel ships carry 90% of global cargo, the WSA says. Steel is important for sea transportation in one other way: almost all of the world's approximately 17 million shipping containers are made of steel.

Besides the cars, steel shows up in trains in the wheels, axels, bearings, and motors. In airplanes, steel is crucial for engines and landing gear.

Domestic Appliances

Clothes washers and dryers, ranges, microwave ovens, dishwashers, and refrigerators all contain steel in varying amounts, including the motors, when applicable. According to the American Iron and Steel Association, a front-loading washer generally contains 84.2 pounds of steel, while a top-bottom refrigerator-freezer contains 79 pounds.

About 75% of the average appliance by weight is steel.

Electrical Equipment

The last major steel market sector involves applications in the production and distribution of electricity. That means transformers, which have a magnetic steel core; generators; electric motors; pylons; and steel-reinforced cables.