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The importance of stainless steel in the UK economy – Rob Cooper in The Metal Magazine

Steel in the UK

Steel in general has had a bit of bad press in recent times. It has often been regarded as a dirty, dangerous, polluting and dying industry, certainly as far as the UK is concerned. However, in recent years both the industry and Government have been very actively attempting to change the preconceptions the general public have held.

Steel is one of the foundation industries essential for the economic and environmental development of the UK. This is now being firmly supported by the Government, who launched the UK Steel Industry statistics and policy document in 2021.

The industry has funding from BEIS (the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), along with industry support through work from Make UK and many other such bodies.

Overall the global demand for steel was 1911.9 million tonnes in 2021 (World Steel Association) with forecast growth of 0.4% for 2022. The UK produces 7 million tonnes of crude steel which is approximately 50% of our UK consumption (Make UK Key Steel Statistics Guide, 2021).

Stainless steel is a well-known, but not necessarily well-understood, segment of this much larger steel industry.

The UK is the birthplace of the industry, and its home is Sheffield. In 1913 Harry Brearley was credited the invention of “rustless steel” by the addition of chromium to carbon steels. He was looking to increase the erosion resistance of gun barrels in preparation for the upcoming “Great War”. As an accidental side effect, he found that the addition of chromium increased the resistance to corrosion of the steel. After the name change to the much more eloquent “stainless steel”, the rest, as they say, is history.

Harry Brearley (1871 – 1948)

Global production of stainless steel has increased by 5.35% year-on-year from 1980 to 2021. The 2021 meltshop production was 58.3 million tonnes (World Stainless). Stainless steel accounts for just over 3% of the total steel production globally. The capacity to produce stainless steel gives the industry an annual growth rate higher than most other major metals.

The UK had an approximate demand of 280,000 tonnes during 2021. The UK produces over 200,000 tonnes of stainless steel at the Outokumpu SMACC plant in Sheffield, alongside other stainless production at Liberty Steels, but most of the UK-produced stainless steel is exported. The UK makes no flat products and only limited ranges of long products (bars, wire, tubes etc), so imports remain very important to keeping the wheels of UK industry turning.

That being said, stainless steel production is a really important income and job generator for the UK. Export sales in 2021 were over £720 million (UK Overseas Trade Data available through editing this table).

The products made by Outokumpu at their SMACC (Stainless Melting and Continuous Casting) plant are mostly semi-finished products: slabs, ingots, billets and blooms in a wide variety of grades. These are then exported globally or used as feedstock in the UK for bar and wire production or in the forging industry. Liberty Steels produce martensitic grades for applications such as surgical knives, blades, valve components and clips, as well as some grades for the aerospace industry.

Importance of stainless steel for all the foundation industries

The foundation industries of cement, glass, ceramics, paper, metals and bulk chemicals are vital for the UK’s manufacturing and construction sectors.

Combined, they are worth about £52 billion to the UK economy, but they face common challenges:

  • Consumption of raw materials and energy use leading to significant operating costs and environmental impact, including 10% of all UK CO2 emissions;
  • Operating in an internationally competitive landscape with long investment cycles;
  • The benefits of innovation are not shared throughout the supply chain, limiting incentives to invest

The UK Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is investing £66 million in a partnership with UK businesses to develop sustainable technologies that reduce the environmental impact of the foundation industries.

This is to ensure that these sectors remain internationally competitive and are ready to meet the Government commitment of net-zero carbon emissions.

Without stainless steel, I believe that none of these foundation industries would be able to exist, let alone reach their net-zero targets.

Although stainless steel usage is comparatively small, it is essential. We could not have an NHS without the hygienic qualities of stainless steel scalpels, there would be no chemical industry without the corrosion resistance of stainless steel reactors, we would have no construction industry without stainless steel wall ties.

The Government in the UK has now started to give some much needed recognition to manufacturing industries including stainless steels. This is key to the Government’s commitments to net-zero and the development of green technology within the UK.

To support our home production capabilities, a Critical Minerals Strategy has been launched. Modern society relies on critical minerals – from phones to wind turbines, from cars to fighter jets.

A new cohort of critical minerals are becoming even more important as we seek to bolster our energy security and domestic industrial resilience. This is especially important in light of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and as we move away from volatile, expensive fossil fuels.

Resilience for the Future: the UK’s critical minerals strategy‘ sets out the government’s plans for improving the resilience of critical minerals supply chains and increasing our security of supply. The aims are to accelerate growth of the UK’s domestic capabilities, collaborate with international partners and to enhance international markets to make them more responsive and transparent.

Stainless steel is a key material in the UK’s drive for net-zero carbon emissions. Home production and imports are essential in the manufacturing of products for sustainable industries, as well as many household and day-to-day items.

Why use stainless steel?

So why use stainless steels?

Stainless steel by value is significantly greater per tonne than most grades of carbon steels. Often in excess of 4 times more per tonne.

However, stainless steel is all around us. From waking up to getting in your car in the morning, it is likely that you will have been in contact with or near at least 20 items made from or containing stainless steel.

This may be your alarm clock or watch strap, the hot water cylinder, the walls in your house (stainless steel wall ties), your toaster, butter knife, kettle, dishwasher, the kitchen sink, washing machine, door handle, the bright trim on your car, the exhaust or battery casing if you have an electric vehicle. The list goes on.

So why are all of these things made from stainless steel? There are several reasons:

  • Corrosion resistance is the main reason for using stainless steel. No one wants a rusty knife cutting their bread in the morning, or worse a rusty razor blade scraping at their face! We want those things to stay clean and hygienic.
  • Appearance: We like the look of stainless steel, whether it is on a beautiful building, or a clean saucepan.
  • Hygiene: Stainless is easy to keep clean and is a good material at preventing bacteria spreading. This is why stainless steel is used in industrial, commercial and domestic food preparation areas, in dairies, in hospitals and for medical appliances to name a few.
  • Low maintenance: Select the correct material for the application and you may not need to do anything to keep the stainless steel in pristine condition. The Chrysler building in New York was built in 1929 and has been cleaned 3 times. It still features all of the original stainless steel on the building! No need to paint or replace, unlike many alternative materials.
  • It is environmentally friendly: Providing the correct grade is selected, stainless steel will last indefinitely. The stainless steel waste produced in the manufacture of goods, or if an item becomes obsolete, can be recycled time after time after time! Some stainless steels being produced today contain over 90% recycled materials.

There are hundreds of uses of stainless steel in industries such as oil and gas production, chemical and pharmaceuticals. They use the corrosion resistance and the ability of stainless steel to operate at temperatures from -200°C to over 1000°C to optimise their production processes.

We use stainless steel in construction where corrosion resistance is critical to the longevity and safety of our built environment. Whether these are fixings and fasteners to ensure connections are secure, stainless steel lintels hidden in the internal structures that are expected to last as long as the building, or bridges when using stainless steel means that it does not need to be painted with all the cost and inconvenience that this incurs.

Hygienic food production relies on stainless steel. Our dairies and our industrial kitchens rely on being able to be cleaned down easily and effectively so we can enjoy healthy, safe food and drink day after day.

Nothing works without having a stainless steel industry.

What this means for UK jobs and the economy

There is limited production of stainless steel within the UK, but what we do is really important for exports and for local jobs. There are a total of 33,400 jobs in the steel industry in the UK overall in 2019.

Around 800 jobs are directly involved in stainless steel production, but there are thousands more involved in the manufacture of goods from stainless, the distribution and processing, the finishing and polishing and multiple peripheral industries supporting our trade.

The use of stainless steels will only increase with the development of new greener technologies; therefore, we are a small yet vital contributor to the UK economy.

Without stainless steel and the skills of the people and businesses involved, we wouldn’t be able to function as a modern industrial nation.

The importance of stainless steel in the UK economy

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