Steel is by far the most important industrial material in the world - and in Europe as much as anywhere else. It is omnipresent in everyday life and it is impossible to make an exhaustive list of everything that uses steel. Even if a product is not made of steel, the machine it is produced on most probably is.
The potential of steel as a material is far from being exhausted. The European steel industry has a globally leading position in research and development. The sector is closely integrated with the European manufacturing industry as well as European universities and research institutes in developing new steel solutions for future challenges. This integration is essential for the rapid and successful modernization of European mobility, energy supply or infrastructure. Here is a selection of main steel applications:
Steel’s role in construction can be spectacular and highly visible, such as in the Eiffel Tower, or rather inconspicuous like when it is embedded in concrete or masonry to reinforce the structure. Whatever its role as a building material, steel is always essential. The European construction industry, a sector which is vital to the European economy and employs more than 43 million people, relies heavily on domestic steel supplies. Construction consumes about 34 per cent of the steel produced in Europe.
Steel performs manifold functions within a building: panels and steel sandwich elements for example are used to build roofs, walls and facades. Beams and reinforcement bars made of steel are indispensable for the structural framework. Steel is used for the stairs, escalators and elevators that make a building accessible.
Steel plays a very prominent aesthetic role, too. Architects rely on the material especially when lightness, transparency and elegance are called for. The Burj al Arab in Dubai (W.S. Atkins & Partners), The Shard in London with its shell of glass and steel (Renzo Piano) or the Beijing National stadium (Herzog & de Meuron) are only a few examples of landmark buildings that show how renowned architects use steel for its appeal and versatility.
Steel is the material of choice when it comes to sustainable, energy- and resource-efficient construction. Thermal transmittance properties of steel sandwich elements, for instance, are significantly better than those of brick, wood or concrete. Highly insulating, the elements reduce energy consumption and emissions, especially in commercial buildings.
Steel makes renewable energies usable: while integrated solar panels consisting of steel laminated with silicon-based solar cells are already available on the market, European steel producers are currently conducting research into organic photovoltaics (OPV). The aim is to print OPV cells on steel sheet in a continuous process similar to the way steel sheet today is coated with paint or plastic foil. OPV-coated steel sheet would cover large surfaces areas of the building envelopes and deliver corresponding amounts of energy. Similar projects are being run with the aim to integrate solar heat collectors into steel sandwich panels. The collectors contain piping systems leading water through the panel that will be heated up by the sunlight hitting the surface, thus contributing to heating and warm water supplies in the building. The new steel solution will be slightly less efficient but much more economic than glass collectors already in use.
The European Union is a major force in the global road transport industry, with more than 2.3 million people directly employed and supporting more than twelve million jobs in total. This success would not be possible without steel. Modern cars comprise around 60 per cent steel body and engine parts. 18 per cent of European steel production goes into automotive applications. Steel producers and car manufacturers are cooperating closely to develop innovative steel solutions to increase safety and reduce a vehicle's carbon footprint.
The European steel industry has developed high-strength multiphase steels for instance that make vehicles lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient. Multiphase steels have a special microstructure that transforms and hardens while the steel sheet is being shaped into a component during car production. Their increased strength reduces material use consumption. Applications as well as processing methods have been developed in simultaneous engineering projects between car makers and steel producers.
European steel makers are creating new composite materials integrating steel and plastics or steel and carbon reinforced plastics. The aim is to combine the strength and formability of steel with the lightness of the other materials for weight-optimized components with a high degree of structural safety. This research is being carried out together with institutes from European universities in close cooperation with carmakers.
The European steel industry is a decisive contributor towards making e-mobility a reality on European roads. So called electrical steel with special magnetic properties is the core material for every electrical motor today. It is also essential for the motors of electrical or hybrid vehicles. European producers are enhancing the electromagnetic qualities of their material therefore, to ensure maximum efficiency of future electric or hybrid vehicles. Currently, prototypes are being built in cooperation with carmakers to find the optimal solution for serial production.
Appliances and household goods
Refrigerators, washing machines or ovens are a daily presence in our lives, as are cutlery, kitchen tools or cookware. Steel is ubiquitous here because of its hygienic properties as well as its durability and its aesthetic qualities. The European steel industry is a close partner of Europe's appliance manufacturers. Steel producers’ project teams work with their customers to ensure consistency in quality and provide technical and logistical support.
Stainless steel, for example has been inspiring designers for decades as a material for elegant tableware and premium cooking utensils. Because of its corrosion resistance, stainless steel is also a core material for many domestic appliances.
Colour coated quality steels are also very successful in a wide variety of domestic applications. Steel producers supply pre-painted steel sheet to appliance manufacturers and they can process it to casings, fronts or covers directly, without the need for further painting operations. This saves process steps, time as well as cost while at the same time offering almost unlimited design options. Pre-painted steel comes not only in many different colours, but also with a wide variety of surface structures. New developments include anti-fingerprint or anti-graffiti coatings.
Whether it be fossil or renewable energy, it would be almost impossible to produce, transport or distribute energy without steel. Wind turbines, for example, would not produce any electricity without steel - in fact they would not even be able stand were it not for their steel towers. The generator, the slew bearings, the blade extenders, the gearbox – in total there can be several hundred tonnes of steel contained in a single windmill. And when energy is distributed, steel is again present in many different ways: in modern transformers, for example, which have degrees of efficiency of more than 99 per cent thanks to high-quality electrical steels.
Fossil fuels like oil or natural gas are transported in pipelines made of steel, some of which are required to be made of special high-purity grades that withstand corrosion from the hydrogen sulphide contained in the fuels. With their special properties these steel help to use reserves that were hitherto difficult to exploit. Ships carrying liquefied natural gas cooled to below 160 degrees centigrade use another speciality made by European steelmakers: low-temperature steels, designed to withstand extreme cold without getting brittle or fragile.
European steelmakers also help to make better use of fossil fuels in new generation power plants. These so-called 700 degree plants will operate on higher temperatures and higher steam pressure than today’s installations. Overall efficiency can rise to more than 50 per cent, well beyond the current European average. The new steels, developed to withstand the heat and the pressure of the new technology, are what makes it possible to achieve the significant emissions reductions resulting from greater efficiency. The materials are currently being tested in cooperation with plant manufacturers and research institutes in Europe.
Steel is the packaging material which best protects and preserves contents from air and light. It is 100 per cent recyclable without any loss in quality and its magnetic properties make it the easiest and most economical packaging material to sort and recover. Routes for collection and recovery of steel cans are well established and the basis for recycling excellence. With a recycling rate of more than 71 per cent, steel is the most recycled packaging material in Europe.
Recent innovations mean that steel is now lighter and more formable than ever before. It also has an ideal surface for high-quality print and decoration. This provides food and beverage producers with numerous possibilities for brand differentiation. And packaging steel producers are improving their material even further: The packaging steel of the future will allow further weight savings. The bodies of three piece food containers could in future be 20 per cent lighter than today’s standard items, saving transport costs and emissions alike. The steel industry is cooperating with packaging producers as well as suppliers of manufacturing systems to bring this innovation to markets.