Steel is an alloy that consists mostly of iron and has a carbon content between 0.2% and 2.1% by weight, depending on the grade. Carbon is the most common alloying material for iron, but various other alloying elements are used, such as manganese, chromium,vanadium, and tungsten. Carbon and other elements act as a hardening agent, preventingdislocations in the iron atom crystal lattice from sliding past one another. Varying the amount of alloying elements and the form of their presence in the steel (solute elements, precipitated phase) controls qualities such as the hardness, ductility, and tensile strength of the resulting steel. Steel with increased carbon content can be made harder and stronger than iron, but such steel is also less ductile than iron.
Alloys with a higher than 2.1% carbon content are known as cast iron because of their lowermelting point and good castability. Steel is also distinguishable from wrought iron, which can contain a small amount of carbon, but it is included in the form of slag inclusions. Two distinguishing factors are steel's increased rust resistance and better weldability.
Though steel had been produced by various inefficient methods long before the Renaissance, its use became more common after more-efficient production methods were devised in the 17th century. With the invention of the Bessemer process in the mid-19th century, steel became an inexpensive mass-produced material. Further refinements in the process, such asbasic oxygen steelmaking (BOS), lowered the cost of production while increasing the quality of the metal. Today, steel is one of the most common materials in the world, with more than 1.3 billion tons produced annually. It is a major component in buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, automobiles, machines, appliances, and weapons. Modern steel is generally identified by various grades defined by assorted standards organizations.