STAINLESS STEELS are iron-base alloys that contain a minimum of approximately 11% Cr, the amount needed to prevent the formation of rust in unpolluted atmospheres (hence the designation "stainless"). Few stainless steels contain more than 30% Cr or less than 50% Fe. They achieve their stainless characteristics through the formation of an invisible and adherent chromium-rich oxide surface film. This oxide forms and heals itself in the presence of oxygen. Other elements added to improve particular characteristics include nickel, molybdenum, copper, titanium, aluminum, silicon, niobium, nitrogen, sulfur, and selenium. Carbon is normally present in amounts ranging from less than 0.03% to over 1.0% in certain martensitic grades.

Although stainless steel is naturally passivated by exposure to air and other oxidizers, additional surface treatments often are needed to prevent corrosion. Passivation, pickling, electropolishing, and, in some cases, mechanical cleaning are important surface treatments for the successful performance of stainless steel used for piping, pressure vessels, tanks, and machined parts in a wide variety of applications, including pulp mills, nuclear power plants, hospital sterilization systems, food processing equipment, biotechnology processing plants, breweries, electronic-chip washing facilities, swimming pool hardware, water treatment plants, and chemical process plants.

Following a brief overview of the various types of stainless steels, this article will describe the various cleaning, finishing, and coating processes associated with engineered stainless steel surfaces. Determining which treatment should be used for specific applications is sometimes confusing. A good place to start is with ASTM A 380 (Ref 1), which is an excellent resource document for the cleaning and descaling of stainless steel parts, equipment, and systems, although it does not cover electropolishing.

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