What is the difference between steel, iron, and metal?

We use metals like gold, platinum, silver, aluminum, copper, iron, etc. every day. Steel and iron are a type of metal. We also use metal alloys which are manufactured using multiple metals. They are melted at a very high temperature and various metal alloys are made.


The main difference between iron and steel is that iron is a pure metal and steel is an alloy. We will look at the difference between both of them in detail now.

What is metal?

Metal encompasses a lot of different materials. They typically conduct heat and electricity. Platinum (symbol Pt), gold (symbol Au), and silver (symbol Ag) are precious metals and are rare on the surface of the earth. Hence they are more expensive and are used for manufacturing jewelry and expensive utensils. However, pure gold or silver cannot be used to manufacture jewelry as it is extremely soft. Gold is alloyed with copper and bronze to create 14 K, 18 K, and 22 K purity metal which is used in manufacturing jewelry.

Silver is alloyed with copper and sterling silver is used in manufacturing jewelry, bars, coins, and utensils. Silver is used in electronics equipment as it is a very good conductor of heat and electricity.

Aluminum (Symbol Al) and copper (Symbol Cu) are abundantly available on earth and are used in electrical wires, manufacturing tools, electrical gadgets, etc. Brass (an alloy of copper and zinc), bronze (an alloy of copper, tin, manganese, phosphorus, aluminum, or silicon) are the most common metal alloys used in daily life. Gilding metal contains copper and zinc and pot metal contains zinc, tin aluminum, and copper. They too are quite common alloys that are used in multiple industrial purposes.

What is iron?

Iron is a metal with the atomic number 26. Its symbol is Fe which comes from the Latin word Ferrum. Earth’s outer and inner core contains a lot of iron and it is available as iron ore in the raw form. However, in its metallic state, it is quite rare on the earth’s crust. These depositions were mainly done by meteorites thousands of years ago.

However, due to its usability, human beings dig out iron from the center of the earth. Iron is extracted from iron ore in blast furnaces where the temperature reaches 1,500 °C. From the 2nd millennium BCE, human beings started this process of extracting iron and using it in wheels, weapons, furniture, pots, utensils, etc.

Iron is the cheapest metal available on earth, and after oxygen, it is the tenth-most common element available on the surface of the earth. The original color of iron is silver-gray and it has a shine like a mirror. However, it reacts with oxygen and water and forms iron oxides. Hence, in day-to-day life, the iron materials we see are brown or black in color. That is the reason why it rusts easily. To protect the iron surfaces, we apply waterproof paints.

What is steel?

Steel is an alloy made up of iron and small quantities of carbon. It improves the strength of the iron and it does not corrode easily. Stainless steel which is used commonly in manufacturing utensils contains about 11% chromium (symbol Cr). It is completely capable of resisting rust and corrosion.

Steel has a very high tensile strength and does not break easily. It is quite malleable and hence can be molded to make utensils, construction-related materials, steel sheets, etc. Since pure iron is quite ductile and can be converted into thin wires, steel also possesses the same qualities.

Even though human beings were experimenting with creating various alloys for centuries together, our old scriptures talk about alchemy in detail. In the 17th century, we learnt the proper process of creating steel at a mass scale. Initially, blast furnaces were used to manufacture steel, and then open-hearth furnaces were used.

In the 19th century Bessemer process was invented to manufacture steel in large volumes. In the current times, we use the basic oxygen steelmaking process in the factories to manufacture steel.

Common usage of iron in the modern era

Pure iron is brittle and seldom is used to manufacture anything. Most of the iron which is used in the modern era is some type of alloy of iron.

  • Iron, after it is extracted from the ore, is used in civil engineering. In modern buildings reinforced concrete, iron bars in columns, girders, etc. are used to strengthen the building structure. If you go to any under-construction building, you will see iron rods coming out of the columns and slabs.
  • Iron is used to make alloys after mixing with carbon. There are other metals like chromium, and manganese. nickel, vanadium, tungsten, etc. which are mixed with iron at very high temperatures and different types of alloys are made. These alloys are used to construct ships, trains, motorcycles, cars, airplanes, and other vehicles. The bodies of most of the vehicles which we use today are made of some alloy of iron.
  • Iron alloys are also used to manufacture heavy and light machinery like knitting machines, industrial sewing machines, machines used in bottling plants, etc.
  • Iron alloys are used in electrical and electronic equipment which we use in our household. We can stick the magnet to the fridge because it is made of iron. The same goes for the outer covering of washing machines, dishwashers, microwave ovens, etc.
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Common usage of steel in the modern era

Steel is used again in similar items mentioned above; however stainless steel has some specific usages.

  • The main use of stainless steel happens in the industry of manufacturing pots and pans. It is the most common material across the globe used for manufacturing household utensils.
  • Another industry that uses high-quality stainless steel is the equipment industry. Examples are scissors, gutters and tweezers. Since stainless steel does not rust, it is safe to use in a lot of situations.


We use metals in our day-to-day lives. If humans wouldn’t have learned how to use metals, we would have been living in the stone age now.

We have discussed if aluminum is a metal here.

Iron is one of the most important metals which runs our lives, and we can’t think of modern life without the iron alloy- steel. 

If you want to learn the difference between copper and brass, you can head over here.


Iron vs Steel: What’s the Difference?




The composition of common alloys