Mechanical properties of iron and its alloys are evaluated using a variety of tests, such as the Brinell test, Rockwell test, or tensile strength tests, among others; the results on iron are so consistent that iron is often used to calibrate measurements or to relate the results of one test to another. Those measurements reveal that mechanical properties of iron crucially depend on purity: Purest research-purpose single crystals of iron are softer than aluminium. Addition of only 10 parts per million of carbon doubles their strength. The hardness increases rapidly with carbon content up to 0.2% and saturates at ~0.6%. The purest industrially produced iron (about 99.99% purity) has a hardness of 20–30 Brinell.
Phase diagram and allotropes
Iron represents an example of allotropy in a metal. There are at least four allotropic forms of iron, known as α, γ, δ, and ε; at very high pressures, some controversial experimental evidence exists for a phase β stable at very high pressures and temperatures. As molten iron cools down it crystallizes at 1538 °C into its δ allotrope, which has a body-centered cubic (bcc) crystal structure. As it cools further its crystal structure changes to face-centered cubic (fcc) at 1394 °C, when it is known as γ-iron, or austenite. At 912 °C the crystal structure again becomes bcc as α-iron, or ferrite, is formed, and at 770 °C (the Curie point, Tc) iron becomes magnetic. Iron is of greatest importance when mixed with certain other metals and with carbon to form steels. There are many types of steels, all with different properties, and an understanding of the properties of the allotropes of iron is key to the manufacture of good quality steels.
Naturally occurring iron consists of four stable isotopes: 5.845% of 54Fe, 91.754% of 56Fe, 2.119% of 57Fe and 0.282% of 58Fe. The nuclide 54Fe is predicted to undergo double beta decay, but this process had never been observed experimentally for these nuclei, and only the lower limit on the half-life was established: t1/2>3.1×1022 years. 60Fe is an extinct radionuclide of long half-life (2.6 million years).
Much of the past work on measuring the isotopic composition of Fe has focused on determining 60Fe variations due to processes accompanying nucleosynthesis (i.e., meteorite studies) and ore formation. In the last decade however, advances in mass spectrometry technology have allowed the detection and quantification of minute, naturally occurring variations in the ratios of the stable isotopes of iron. Much of this work has been driven by the Earth and planetary science communities, although applications to biological and industrial systems are beginning to emerge.
The most abundant iron isotope 56Fe is of particular interest to nuclear scientists as it represents the most common endpoint of nucleosynthesis. It is often cited, falsely, as the isotope of highest binding energy, a distinction which actually belongs to Nickel-62. Since 56Ni is easily produced from lighter nuclei in the alpha process in nuclear reactions in supernovae (see silicon burning process), nickel-56 (14 alpha particles) is the endpoint of fusion chains inside extremely massive stars, since addition of another alpha particle would result in zinc-60, which requires a great deal more energy. This nickel-56, which has a half-life of about 6 days, is therefore made in quantity in these stars, but soon decays by two successive positron emissions within supernova decay products in the supernova remnant gas cloud, to first radioactive cobalt-56, and then stable iron-56. This last nuclide is therefore common in the universe, relative to other stable metals of approximately the same atomic weight.
Iron is created by extremely large, extremely hot (over 2.5 billion kelvin) stars, through a process called the silicon burning process. It is the heaviest stable element to be produced in this manner. The process starts with the second largest stable nucleus created by silicon burning: calcium. One stable nucleus of calcium fuses with one helium nucleus, creating unstable titanium. Before the titanium decays, it can fuse with another helium nucleus, creating unstable chromium. Before the chromium decays, it can fuse with another helium nucleus, creating unstable iron. Before the iron decays, it can fuse with another helium nucleus, creating unstable nickel-56. Any further fusion of nickel-56 consumes energy instead of producing energy, so after the production of nickel-56, the star does not produce the energy necessary to keep the core from collapsing. Eventually, the nickel-56 decays to unstable cobalt-56 which, in turn decays to stable iron-56 When the core of the star collapses, it creates a Supernova. Supernovas also create additional forms of stable iron via the r-process.