Tungsten vs Steel and other metals: What makes Tungsten Special?

Tungsten vs steel cover image

You must have heard about the metal tungsten. It is one of the most industrially useful metals used in multiple processes. Due to the quality it has, it is one of the most useful metals to man. What makes it so important? What are the uses of tungsten and what is tungsten carbide? Tungsten vs steel is often used to show how the metal is on par with steel. 

Tungsten carbide is a compound metal just like steel. Steel is made by combing iron, which is not very flexible and prone to rust, with carbon. Similarly, tungsten with carbon gives tungsten carbide and it is one of the hardest materials on earth, almost reaching the hardness level of a diamond. 

What is tungsten 

Tungsten is an element like iron that is used from making lightbulbs to radiation protection suits. The scientific name for the element in Wolfram which is a Swedish word. The word means “heavy metal.” It has a chemical symbol of W.

Tungsten has an atomic number of 74 and one of the heaviest known elements. 

Tungsten is special because it has the highest melting point amongst all elements. It has 3,433º C or 6,191) F. It also has the lowest vapor pressure. For the people who don’t know, vapor pressure is the pressure exerted by the gaseous molecules of the element when it is in equilibrium. Tungsten is also resistant to corrosion. 

Tungsten has a density of 19.25 g/cm^3 which is very close to gold (19.30 g/cm^3). This is the reason why many people used tungsten to make fake gold bars. At higher temperatures, tungsten oxidizes to form a layer of tungsten oxide. 

A tungsten filament bulb

Uses of Tungsten 

Tungsten has many uses. Since it has a very high melting point of 3,433º C ( The sun’s surface temperature is 5,500ºC), it can be used in machines where the temperature is quite high. In Halogen lamps and bulbs, tungsten is used as a filament as it can withstand high temperatures without melting. I

It is also used as electrodes for argon-arc welding. Tungsten is very hard and hence it is used in many military types of equipment as hard projectile cores. High-quality steel is sometimes steel mixed with tungsten to make it even better. Tungsten is used as X-ray targets, dry lubricant, etc.

What is steel 

steel making

Steel is a compound metal that is made when elemental iron is mixed with the right amount of carbon. Carbon gives the iron a lot of strength and flexibility, increasing the practicality of iron by a lot. The carbon content of iron changes its property. Iron with more than 2.1% carbon content is called cast iron while less than 0.001% is called wrought iron.

Steel is used in so many things, it would be hard to imagine the modern world without it. It is the framework our modern world stands on. While Tungsten carbide is better than steel, it is very expensive. And no one wants to use a special metal for simple tasks.
Take gold for example. A gold coin the size of a nickel could be beaten and made into a 1 kilometer ( 0.6 miles) long because it is so malleable and ductile. But we don’t use it for that. 

rolls of steel

Steel is used in making buildings, tools, vehicles, towers, appliances, household items, weapons, you are always surrounded by steel. Steel production boomed in the industrial revolution and since then, we have made the production of steel quite economical. Thus steel is relatively cheaper. China, Japan, Russia, and the US are the top steel producers of the world. 

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Which is a better metal?

There is no such answer for this question. Both have equal importance in the industry and it is very hard for each of them to take their place. Tungsten’s hardness, density, and high melting point make it of great use in niche industries and machinery. Steel greater and cheaper availability allows us to make the world we live in. Steel is used to make the railway tracks on which the trains run, but tungsten makes the filaments that light up the coaches. There is no tungsten vs steel.

Properties of tungsten

Tungsten is a very interesting metal with its range of properties. Tungsten has a very high thermal conductivity; up to 500º C., This means that it can conduct electricity even at that high temperature. It is also highly resistant to corrosion. So it can work in acidic environments.

It has high hardness and hence it is used in many military and weaponry equipment. Hardness does not mean density or how hard the element is. Hardness means how much wear and tear the element can handle without getting a dent or scratch on the surface. In other words, tungsten is wear-resistant. It is also heat resistant.

A mixture of tungsten, molybdenum (lies very close to tungsten in the periodic table), and vanadium is called high-speed steel used in cutting tool equipment. While tungsten is in itself a great metal, alloying it makes it even better. Tungsten in the powdered state can ignite spontaneously at room temperature.

Color tones of tungsten

Tungsten has the lowest expansion coefficient or expansivity. All the metals expand when they are heated. But how much the metals expand per º C increase differs. Expansivity is that and tungsten expands the least.

Tungsten Carbide 

Like when iron and carbon meet to make steel, tungsten, and carbon meet to make tungsten carbide. The process involves heating tungsten powder with carbon and hydrogen in a furnace to make something even better than tungsten.
Compared to steel, tungsten carbide is almost 3 times as tough as steel. Another great thing about this alloy is its compressive strength. WC (Tungsten carbide) has the highest compressive strength amongst all the forged metals. This means that it can withstand more compression without breaking.

In its mono carbide from which is denoted as WC, tungsten carbide hardness level comes close to the diamond, which is the hardest substance on earth. It is also resistant to erosion, abrasion, pitting, and can last up t0 100 times longer than steel in deteriorating conditions. It is also a better conductor of electricity than steel. But at the same time, it is more expensive.

With great elastic module (which both tungsten and tungsten carbide have), comes the ability to not get deformed easily. To get an idea of how great tungsten carbide is in terms of not getting deformed, here is the example. Tungsten carbide has an elastic modulus of 700 GPa. Diamond has an elastic modulus of 1000 GPa.

There is no comparison between tungsten and steel. Both are equally important and both have many uses in multiple industries, from automobile to space. Tungsten is also used to make jewelry like rings. However, rings of titanium are much preferred since it is relatively cheaper, lighter, and is non-allergic. Some people have shown an allergic response to tungsten. Each metal is unique, be it tungsten or be it steel.

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