Cast Iron

Cast iron, an alloy of iron that contains 2 to 4 percent carbon, along with varying amounts of silicon and manganese and traces of impurities such as sulfur and phosphorus. It is made by reducing iron ore in a blast furnace. The liquid iron is cast, or poured and hardened, into crude ingots called pigs, and the pigs are subsequently remelted along with scrap and alloying elements in cupola furnaces and recast into molds for producing a variety of products.

The Chinese produced cast iron as early as the 6th century BC, and it was produced sporadically in Europe by the 14th century. It was introduced into England about 1500; the first ironworks in America were established on the James River, Virginia, in 1619. During the 18th and 19th centuries, cast iron was a cheaper engineering material than wrought iron because it did not require intensive refining and working with hammers, but it was more brittle and inferior in tensile strength. Nevertheless, its load-bearing strength made it the first important structural metal, and it was used in some of the earliest skyscrapers. In the 20th century, steel replaced cast iron in construction, but cast iron continues to have many industrial applications.

Most cast iron is either so-called gray iron or white iron, the colours shown by fracture. Gray iron contains more silicon and is less hard and more machinable than is white iron. Both are brittle, but a malleable cast iron produced by a prolonged heat treatment was developed in France in the 18th century, and a cast iron that is ductile as cast was invented in the United States and Britain in 1948. Such ductile irons now constitute a major family of metals that are widely used for gears, dies, automobile crankshafts, and many other machine parts.

Types of Cast Iron

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Cast iron is a group of iron-carbon alloys with a carbon content greater than 2%.[1] Its usefulness derives from its relatively low melting temperature. The alloy constituents affect its colour when fractured: white cast iron has carbide impurities which allow cracks to pass straight through, grey cast iron has graphite flakes which deflect a passing crack and initiate countless new cracks as the material breaks, and ductile cast iron has spherical graphite "nodules" which stop the crack from further progressing.

Carbon (C) ranging from 1.8–4 wt%, and silicon (Si) 1–3 wt% are the main alloying elements of cast iron. Iron alloys with lower carbon content (~0.8%) are known as steel. While this technically makes the Fe–C–Si system ternary, the principle of cast iron solidification can be understood from the simpler binary iron–carbon phase diagram. Since the compositions of most cast irons are around the eutectic point (lowest liquid point) of the iron–carbon system, the melting temperatures usually range from 1,150 to 1,200 °C (2,100 to 2,190 °F), which is about 300 °C (540 °F) lower than the melting point of pure iron of 1,535 °C (2,795 °F).

Cast iron tends to be brittle, except for malleable cast irons. With its relatively low melting point, good fluidity, castability, excellent machinability, resistance to deformation and wear resistance, cast irons have become an engineering material with a wide range of applications and are used in pipes, machines and automotive industry parts, such as cylinder heads (declining usage), cylinder blocks and gearbox cases (declining usage). It is resistant to destruction and weakening by oxidation.

The earliest cast-iron artifacts date to the 5th century BC, and were discovered by archaeologists in what is now Jiangsu in China. Cast iron was used in ancient China for warfare, agriculture, and architecture. During the 15th century, cast iron became utilized for cannon in Burgundy, France, and in England during the Reformation. The amounts of cast iron used for cannon required large scale production. The first cast-iron bridge was built during the 1770s by Abraham Darby III, and is known as The Iron Bridge. Cast iron was also used in the construction of buildings.


Cast iron is made from pig iron, which is the product of smelting iron ore in a blast furnace. Cast iron can be made directly from the molten pig iron or by re-melting pig iron, often along with substantial quantities of iron, steel, limestone, carbon (coke) and taking various steps to remove undesirable contaminants. Phosphorus and sulfur may be burnt out of the molten iron, but this also burns out the carbon, which must be replaced. Depending on the application, carbon and silicon content are adjusted to the desired levels, which may be anywhere from 2–3.5% and 1–3%, respectively. If desired, other elements are then added to the melt before the final form is produced by casting.

Cast iron is sometimes melted in a special type of blast furnace known as a cupola, but in modern applications, it is more often melted in electric induction furnaces or electric arc furnaces. After melting is complete, the molten cast iron is poured into a holding furnace or ladle.

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