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Peak Stainless Steel

Peak Stainless Steel

This study shows that there is a significant risk that stainless steel production will reach its maximum capacity around 2055 because of declining nickel production, though recycling, and use of other alloys on a very small scale can compensate somewhat.

The model in this study assumes business as usual for metal production and fossil fuel supplies (though the authors note that energy limitations are likely in the future, which will limit mining). If oil begins to decline within 10 years, as many think, shortages of stainless steel and everything else will happen before 2055.

There are two kinds of steel. Stainless which resists corrosion and is more ductile and tough than regular steel, also known as mild or carbon steel. 

By weight, stainless steel is the fourth largest metal produced, after carbon steel, cast iron, and aluminum. 

But stainless steel is limited by the alloying metals manganese (Mn), chromium (Cr) and nickel (Ni), which have limited reserves. 

There are over 150 grades of stainless steel which is used for cutlery, cookware, zippers, construction, autos, handrails, counters, shipping containers, medical instruments and equipment, transportation of chemicals, liquids, and food products, harsh environments with high heat and toxic substances, off-shore oil rigs, wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, battleships, tanks, submarines, and too many other products to name.

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Sverdrup, H. U., et al. 2019. Assessing the long-term global sustainability of the production and supply for stainless steel. Biophysical economics and resource quality.

The extractable amounts of nickel are modest, and this puts a limit on how much stainless steel of different qualities can be produced. Nickel is the most key element for stainless steel production. 

This study shows that there is a significant risk that the stainless steel production will reach its maximum capacity around 2055 and slowly decline after that. The model indicates that stainless steel of the type containing Mn–Cr–Ni will have a production peak in about 2040, and the production will decline after 2045 because of nickel supply limitations.  

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