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Pure tungsten. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/albedomusic

Stainless Steel vs. Tungsten: What Are the Key Differences?

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
January 31, 2024
 17 min read
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Stainless steel and tungsten are distinct materials with differences in composition, properties, and applications. Stainless steel is a family of alloys made primarily from iron, chromium, nickel, and other elements, varied according to the specific grade. Tungsten is a chemical element with the symbol "W" on the periodic table. It is a transition metal with an exceptionally high melting point and density. 

Stainless steel is extremely widely used across all industries, including construction, automotive, kitchenware, medical equipment, consumer goods, and outdoor furniture, due to its corrosion resistance and versatility. Tungsten, on the other hand, is used extensively in passive projectile and armor-piercing projectiles because of its density and penetrating power.

This article will discuss the key differences between stainless steel and tungsten in terms of composition, types, and applications, 

What Is Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel is a family of alloys, composed of iron, chromium, nickel, and varying amounts of elements like: molybdenum, manganese, and silicon. Its remarkable corrosion resistance stems from the formation of a passive chromium oxide layer on its surface when exposed to oxygen. This protective layer prevents rust and deterioration, even in humid or chemically aggressive environments.

Stainless steel offers great durability at a relatively low cost, putting this family of alloys at the heart of products in: construction, automotive, aerospace, consumer goods, healthcare, industrial processing, and many other sectors. With various grades and types available, stainless steel can be tuned to meet specific requirements, optimizing its value in various applications and more demanding conditions, by careful selection of alloying constituents and heat treatment.

To learn more, see our full guide on the Properties of Stainless Steel.

What Is Another Name for Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel is sometimes referred to as generic corrosion-resistant steel. Additionally, it is called inox or inox-steel from the French inoxydable, meaning non-oxidizable. 

What Is Stainless Steel Made Of?

Stainless steel’s constituent alloying elements are: iron (Fe) and a variable quantity/proportion of other elements, with the most crucial being chromium (Cr). These alloys typically include nickel (Ni), molybdenum (Mo), manganese (Mn), cobalt (Co), silicon (Si), and other elements in varying proportions depending on the grade of stainless steel.

The combination and ratios of these alloying agents, along with the manufacturing processes, determine the resulting grade and properties of stainless steel. The divergent grades of stainless steel exhibit alternate crystalline structures that significantly affect the material properties, the level of corrosion resistance, strength, ductility, temperature resistance, and other characteristics. This results in a large family of materials that offer characteristics suitable for a wide range of industrial and commercial applications.

How Is Stainless Steel Made?

Stainless steels are alloyed through a precision process in which refined and closely controlled alloying agents are added to iron (Fe) in a furnace, to create the desired resultant alloy. 

It begins with a careful selection of raw materials, including: iron, scrap steel of known constituents, and selected additions from chromium, nickel, molybdenum, and others. The selection of metals defines the outcome of stainless steel grade and its properties. The selected raw materials are melted in an electric arc or induction furnace at extremely high temperatures. Strict control over temperature and composition is required to achieve precise alloying ratios. Alloying elements are introduced into the molten iron/scrap steel to attain the precise composition needed for the desired grade. These alloying elements are often added in the form of pre-prepared alloy or pure metal ingots. Deoxidizing and desulfurizing agents may be used during the melting process to remove impurities like oxygen and sulfur, which can negatively affect the steel's properties. These agents are commonly carbon as charcoal or high-purity carbon granules which react with the oxygen and sulfur to form slag.

Samples are taken from the melt for spectroscopic analysis to ensure that the alloying elements are within the specified range. This QC measure guarantees that the final stainless steel product meets industry standards and customer requirements. Once properly alloyed and tested, the molten steel is cast into semi-finished forms such as: slabs, billets, or ingots. This can be continuous or batch casting, depending on the scale of production.

What Are the Different Types of Stainless Steel?

Stainless steel can be classified into several main classes or types based on its microstructure and alloy composition, with fine degrees of differentiation in subcategories of alloys with highly tuned properties. Below are the different types of stainless steel:

  1. Austenitic Stainless Steel: These steels are the most common and widely used type of stainless steel. They are non-magnetic and possess a face-centered cubic (FCC) crystal structure. Renowned for their excellent corrosion resistance, high ductility, and good formability, the common grades include: 304 (18-8 stainless), 316 (sometimes called marine-grade), and 321.
  2. Ferritic Stainless Steel: They are formed from a body-centered cubic (BCC) crystalline structure. They are magnetic and offer good corrosion resistance, especially in environments with low chloride content. Common grades include 430 and 409.
  3. Martensitic Stainless Steel: They have a body-centered tetragonal (BCT) crystal structure. They are magnetic and are known for their high strength, hardness, and wear resistance. They have lower corrosion resistance compared to austenitic and ferritic steels, and common grades include 410 and 420.
  4. Duplex Stainless Steel: Duplex stainless steels combine the properties of both austenitic and ferritic stainless steels. They have a mixed microstructure of austenite and ferrite, which provides excellent corrosion resistance and high strength. Common grades include 2205 and 2507 (Super Duplex).
  5. Precipitation-Hardening Stainless Steel: Precipitation-hardening stainless steels can be heat-treated to achieve elevated levels of strength and hardness. They can be martensitic or austenitic. They are used in applications in which both corrosion resistance and good mechanical properties are critical. Grades include: 17-4 PH (martensitic), FV520, 17-7PH, and PH15-7 Mo (mixed martensitic and austenitic), and JBK 75 and 17-10 P (austenitic). They can be heat-treated to achieve high strength and corrosion resistance.
  6. Specialty Stainless Steels: Various specialty grades have been developed for specific applications. Examples include: high-temperature grades like 2111HTR, low-temperature grades like 304L, and high-nickel grades like Inconel®.

Each class of stainless steel has its own optimized properties. Grade selection is crucial to ensuring the resultant product performance and longevity in real-world use environments.

What Are the Advantages of Stainless Steel?

Stainless steels offer numerous advantages, varied by grade and allowing selection for particular properties that are advantageous for each application:

  1. Has exceptional corrosion resistance, making it ideal for harsh environments. Each grade has particular environmental resilience and susceptibilities that can be closely identified.
  2. Are robust and generally tolerant of wear/abrasion, impact, and extreme temperatures, ensuring a long product life span.
  3. Smooth, non-porous, and durable surfaces are easy to clean, making stainless steel suitable for food, medical, and pharmaceutical applications.
  4. Provide various degrees of excellence in mechanical properties, including high tensile strength and hardness.
  5. Adaptable to various industries, from construction and automotive to healthcare and aerospace.
  6. Can deliver a sleek appearance and reflective surfaces, making them popular in architectural and decorative applications.
  7. Are highly recyclable and resist process degradation and material loss, promoting sustainability.

What Are the Disadvantages of Stainless Steel?

While stainless steel offers many advantages across many applications, it also has particular and more generalized disadvantages such as:

  1. Can be more expensive than other materials due to its complex alloy composition and increased difficulty in manufacturing processes.
  2. Some grades can become embrittled at low temperatures, impacting their toughness.
  3. Can be challenging to machine and may require specialized tools and processes. This is particularly true of the austenitic grades which can demonstrate severe work hardening during cutting processes.
  4. Its high density makes stainless steel a difficult choice in weight-sensitive applications.
  5. Has lower thermal conductivity compared to other metals like aluminum or copper. Despite this, these materials are often used in heat-exchange applications in which the need for chemical resilience outweighs the thermal limitations.
  6. Certain stainless steel grades are magnetic, which can affect their suitability for specific applications such as in NMR machines and sensitive instruments.
  7. Can show fingerprints or water spots in a very pronounced way, although they can be easily cleaned.
  8. The production of stainless steel can have a significant environmental footprint due to energy-intensive processes and environmentally degrading mining and refining processes. In particular, chromium mining/refining produces massive toxicity that is often a neglected and hidden cost.

Is Stainless Steel Better Than Tungsten?

It depends on the specific application. Stainless steel excels in corrosion resistance and versatility but does not possess tungsten's extreme hardness and high-temperature resilience. Tungsten is ideal for certain high-wear and high-temperature applications but is heavier and much more expensive.

What Is Tungsten?

Tungsten is a chemical element with the symbol W on the periodic table (atomic number 74). It is among the most dense of the metallic elements, from the transition metals group of the periodic table. It is known for having one of the highest melting points of any element. As a result of its unique properties, tungsten is applied in various industrial applications, including the manufacture of electrical wires and filaments, the production of high-temperature jet and rocket parts, and as an alloying element in steel to improve its hardness and durability. Tungsten is also used in the creation of tungsten carbide, a hard material often used in cutting tools and abrasives.

What Is Another Name for Tungsten?

Tungsten is known by several other names. One of which is “wolfram.” This is derived from tungsten contamination of tin alloys, which produced lower yield as if the tin was “consumed by a wolf” and resulted in the chemical nomenclature symbol W in the periodic table. Another alternative name is “heavy stone.” Tungsten itself is derived from the Swedish words for heavy stone, due to its high density and weight.

What Is Tungsten Made Of?

Tungsten is a chemical element and consists of an indivisible atomic structure. Tungsten's high atomic number informs of a heavy nucleus that gives it its unique properties, such as: its exceptionally high melting point, hardness, and density.

How Is Tungsten Made?

Tungsten is refined through the typical metal-extraction steps of mining, ore concentration, chemical processing, and metallurgical purification techniques. 

Chemical processing transforms the ore into ammonium paratungstate (APT) or tungstic acid. A reduction process using hydrogen converts/reduces the APT into tungsten metal powder. Further purification steps remove impurities, and consolidation methods/smelting create solid forms. These are then machined and shaped into desired products.

What Are the Different Types of Tungsten?

Tungsten-containing materials encompass a wide range of products and compounds:

  1. Tungsten-Bearing Alloys: Tungsten is often alloyed with other metals like: nickel, copper, or iron to create high-density materials with enhanced properties. Common examples include tungsten-copper (for hard-wearing, arc-resistant electrical contacts) and tungsten-nickel-iron alloys (for radiation shielding).
  2. Tungsten Carbide: Tungsten carbide is a hard and wear-resistant compound formed by sintering tungsten with carbides. It's used extensively in cutting tools, drills, saw blades, and machining inserts.
  3. Tungsten Filaments: Tungsten is used in the manufacturing of incandescent lightbulbs and electron-microscope filaments due to its high melting point and electrical conductivity.
  4. Tungsten Compounds: Tungsten is found in various chemical compounds, such as tungstic acid (H2WO4) and ammonium paratungstate (APT), precursors in the refining of tungsten metal.
  5. Tungsten-Based Superalloys: Tungsten is used as a strengthening element in high-temperature superalloys, enhancing their creep resistance in extreme-temperature aerospace and power-generation applications such as combustion chambers and exhaust guides.
  6. Tungsten Target Materials: In the semiconductor industry, tungsten is used as a target material for sputtering to deposit thin films on semiconductor wafers. Its stability and high-temperature performance leave it unaffected by the sputtering process.
  7. Tungsten Heavy Alloys: Heavy alloys with nickel and iron are used in applications requiring a balance of density, machinability, and radiation shielding.
  8. Tungsten Wire and Rods: These find use in electrical and heating applications, including thermocouples and heating elements.

What Are the Advantages of Tungsten?

Tungsten offers some pronounced and unique advantages:

  1. Has one of the highest melting points of any element, making it ideal for extreme-temperature applications in aerospace and metallurgy.
  2. Is extremely hard, providing excellent wear resistance valued in cutting tools, drills, and abrasives.
  3. Its density is close to that of gold (at a considerably lower cost), making it applicable for balancing, radiation shielding, and military-projectile applications.
  4. Is highly resistant to corrosion, even in aggressive environments.
  5. Possesses good electrical conductivity, allowing it to be used in electrical and electronic components like: thermocouples, filaments, and switch contacts.

What Are the Disadvantages of Tungsten?

While tungsten has many advantages, it also has some significant disadvantages that limit its applicability:

  1. Is relatively expensive due to its scarcity and challenging extraction/refining process.
  2. Undergoes a brittle to ductile transition at around 400 °C, which may limit the use of the pure metal in certain applications.
  3. Its high density makes tungsten heavier than many other materials, which is a burden whenever it is a necessary material in weight-sensitive applications.
  4. Difficult to machine, requiring specialized tools and techniques.
  5. Its compounds can be toxic, particularly when inhaled as dust or fumes during processing.
  6. Tungsten mining and processing have a significant environmental footprint due to energy-intensive and toxic intermediate processes.
  7. Certain tungsten alloys can be magnetic, which may affect their suitability for specific applications.

Is Tungsten Better Than Stainless Steel?

It depends on the specifics of the application. Tungsten excels in extreme hardness, high-temperature resistance, and density. Stainless steel offers: good strength, corrosion resistance, low cost, and versatility.

How To Choose Between Stainless Steel and Tungsten?

The selection between tungsten and stainless steel depends on the specific requirements of the application. Understand the key factors, such as: service temperature, corrosion challenges, strength, and cost issues that are critical for your application. Choose tungsten if you need extreme hardness, temperature endurance, or density. Choose stainless steel if corrosion resistance, versatility, and cost-effectiveness are priorities.

Assess the budget available for materials, as tungsten is only suitable for must-have and cost-unconstrained products. Evaluate the ease of machining and fabricating of each material based on your project requirements. As a rule, higher volume and more complexity of machining favor stainless steel.

What Are the Properties of Stainless Steel and Tungsten?

Table 1 below shows a comparison of the properties of stainless steel and tungsten:

Table 1: Comparison of Properties of Stainless Steel and Tungsten
PropertiesStainless SteelTungsten
Properties
Corrosion Resistance
Stainless Steel
Excellent corrosion resistance.
Tungsten
Exhibits good resistance to most chemicals and corrosion in normal atmospheric conditions.
Properties
Strength
Stainless Steel
Varies by grade, but generally offers good mechanical strength.
Tungsten
Has good tensile strength and is capable of withstanding heavy loads and stresses.
Properties
Density
Stainless Steel
Moderate density; denser than aluminum but less dense than materials like tungsten.
Tungsten
Very high density, similar to that of gold, which makes it valuable for applications requiring weight and balance.
Properties
Melting Point
Stainless Steel
Relatively high melting point, with variations among different grades.
Tungsten
Extremely high melting point, at approximately 3,422 °C (6,192 °F), making it ideal for high-temperature applications.
Properties
Hardness
Stainless Steel
Varies depending on the grade and heat treatment; some grades are exceptionally hard.
Tungsten
Exceptionally hard, ranking among the hardest naturally occurring materials, offering excellent wear resistance.
Properties
Ductility
Stainless Steel
Good ductility allows for forming and shaping into various configurations.
Tungsten
Has moderate ductility at low temperature.
Properties
Thermal Conductivity
Stainless Steel
Moderate thermal conductivity; not as high as metals like copper or aluminum.
Tungsten
Moderate thermal conductivity, lower than that of copper or aluminum but suitable for some applications.
Properties
Electrical Conductivity
Stainless Steel
Moderate electrical conductivity; suitable for electrical applications.
Tungsten
Relatively low electrical conductivity, making it useful in electrical applications like filaments and electrodes.
Properties
Magnetic Properties
Stainless Steel
Austenitic stainless steel is non-magnetic; other types may exhibit magnetic properties.
Tungsten
Typically weakly paramagnetic as pure metal, varies in level in some specialized alloys or under extreme conditions.
Properties
Temperature Resistance
Stainless Steel
Maintains strength and corrosion resistance at both high and low temperatures.
Tungsten
Offers the highest temperature resilience of all metals, retaining mechanical integrity and moderate strength when white-hot.
Properties
Hygiene
Stainless Steel
Easy to clean and maintain, making it suitable for food and medical applications.
Tungsten
While tungsten can be sterilized by all normal methods, there are indications of corrosion in contact with bodily fluids.
Properties
Weldability
Stainless Steel
Generally weldable, but some grades may require special precautions and techniques.
Tungsten
Can be welded by extreme gas/arc techniques, but it is easier to laser weld.
Properties
Formability
Stainless Steel
Can be readily formed and fabricated into various shapes and sizes.
Tungsten
Challenging to machine and form, requiring specialized tools and techniques.
Properties
Cost
Stainless Steel
Varies depending on the grade and availability; can be cost-effective for many applications.
Tungsten
Relatively expensive due to its scarcity and complex extraction process.
Properties
Appearance
Stainless Steel
Offers a sleek, shiny appearance, which is often aesthetically pleasing and used in architectural elements.
Tungsten
When polished, tungsten is a dark silver color and lustrous. It quickly tarnishes in air to a dull gray.
Properties
Environmental Impact
Stainless Steel
Highly recyclable, making it an environmentally friendly material choice.
Tungsten
The production of tungsten can have a significant environmental footprint due to energy-intensive processes.
Properties
Brittleness
Stainless Steel
Range from highly ductile to moderately brittle, depending on alloy and heat treatment.
Tungsten
Can become brittle at low temperatures, which may limit their use in certain applications.
Properties
Weight
Stainless Steel
Are generally quite dense alloys, 7,000–8,000 kg/m^3. This is light, compared with tungsten.
Tungsten
Its high-density results in significant weight, which can be a drawback. Alloys range up to 19,000 kg/m^3 for high tungsten content.

Can Stainless Steel and Tungsten Be Laser Engraved?

Yes, both stainless steel and tungsten can be mechanically or laser engraved. Laser engraving is a precise and effective method for creating permanent markings, logos, and designs on these and most other materials. The laser's high intensity can create detailed and durable engravings without compromising the materials' integrity.

To learn more, see our full guide on How Laser Engraving Works.

Are Stainless Steel and Tungsten Both Scratch-Resistant?

Yes, both stainless steel and tungsten are known for their resistance to scratching. Stainless steel's hardness varies by grade but generally offers good scratch resistance. Tungsten is exceptionally hard, among the hardest materials, providing excellent resistance to scratches. 

Do Stainless Steel and Tungsten Resist Cracking?

Stainless steel and tungsten both offer good resistance to fracture, but the degree of resistance varies depending on various factors. The specific alloy, heat treatment, and the conditions they are exposed to all can have pronounced effects. In general, stainless steel is known for its good toughness and resistance to cracking, while tungsten, especially in its pure form, can become brittle at low temperatures. However, tungsten alloys are often used to enhance toughness and reduce brittleness in alloying applications.

How Can Xometry Assist You With Your Tungsten or Stainless Steel Needs?

Xometry has access to exceptional material sourcing capabilities and can rapidly assess your application needs to help in defining the ideal solution, both in the wide material group and in specifics of alloying and processing, to optimize your parts.

How To Identify Stainless Steel and Tungsten?

Identifying stainless steel and tungsten can be tackled by various methods. Stainless steels are generally non-magnetic or less markedly magnetic than mild or carbon steels. If a magnet doesn't attract, it's likely stainless steel. They typically have a shiny, reflective surface, often with a brushed or polished finish. Check for manufacturer markings or labels on the material to identify the grade. Stainless steel is generally highly corrosion-resistant and won't rust easily when exposed to moisture, in natural environments. Tungsten on the other hand will form an oxide patina in normal ambient air.

Tungsten is exceptionally dense and heavy; it will feel much heavier than materials of similar size. It has a distinct metallic gray color with a high luster. The metal and most of its alloys are extremely hard and resistant to scratches. Tungsten has an exceptionally high melting point (3,422 °C), making it impossible to melt without highly specialized smelting equipment.

What Are the Applications of Stainless Steel and Tungsten?

Stainless steel applications include:

  1. Architecture and construction.
  2. Aerospace, various high-strength parts.
  3. Automotive, exhaust components, finishing parts.
  4. Medical equipment.
  5. Food and beverage industry.
  6. Oil & gas extraction/refining.
  7. Marine industry fixtures, etc.
  8. Chemical and pharmaceutical processing.
  9. Electronics enclosures.
  10. Cutlery, kitchenware, and whiteware.

Tungsten applications include:

  1. Aerospace combustion systems.
  2. Electronics wires, filaments, contacts.
  3. Medical device radiation shielding.
  4. Mining and drilling cutters.
  5. Nuclear industry radiation shielding.
  6. Lighting filaments in incandescent bulbs.
  7. High-temperature furnaces and heating elements.
  8. Ammunition in armor-piercing projectiles.
  9. Sintered with carbide to make cutting tools.

Is Stainless Steel Suitable for Shipbuilding?

Yes, stainless steel has some applicability in shipbuilding, particularly in specific areas and applications within the marine industry such as fixtures and fittings (not generally for major hull elements). Its corrosion resistance and durability make it the obvious choice for various components and structures in ships and boats.

While stainless steel is a valuable material in aspects of shipbuilding, the alloy selection depends on exposure to corrosive (salt) conditions. Some grades are entirely unsuited to chloride exposure.

Is Tungsten a High-Quality Metal?

Yes, tungsten is considered a high-quality metal due to its exceptional properties. It is valuable in demanding applications such as: aerospace, electronics, and high-temperature environments.

Are Tungsten and Stainless Steel Rustproof?

Yes, both tungsten and stainless steel are highly corrosion-resistant and, when properly maintained, are considered rustproof.

How Much Do Stainless Steel and Tungsten Cost?

The cost of stainless steel and tungsten can vary widely depending on factors such as: the specific grade, form, quantity, and market conditions.

Stainless steel is supplied in various grades and forms. For bulk orders of common grades, prices can range from a few dollars per kilogram to over $10 per kilogram.

Tungsten is relatively expensive due to its scarcity and the complex extraction process. Tungsten metal prices can range from approximately $30 to $60 per kilogram and much more for specialized alloys.

Is Tungsten as Good as Gold?

Tungsten is unrelated to gold in almost all circumstances, as the price difference and differential properties are very large. Tungsten carbide is occasionally used for jewelry, as it is super dense and scratch-resistant and can have an attractive surface.

Summary

This article presented stainless steel and tungsten, explained each of them, and discussed their key differences To learn more about both stainless steel and tungsten, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

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Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.