Steel is a metal alloy whose major component is iron, with carbon content between 0.02% and 2.14% by mass. An alloy is a metallic solid solution composed of two or more elements. Complete solid solution alloys give single solid phase microstructure, while partial solutions give two or more phases that may or may not be homogeneous in distribution, depending on thermal (heat treatment) history. Alloys usually have different properties from those of the component elements. Alloy constituents are usually measured by mass.
Alloying a metal is done by combining it with one or more other metals or non-metals that often enhances its properties. For example, steel is stronger than iron, its primary element. The physical properties, such as density, reactivity, Young's modulus, and electrical and thermal conductivity, of an alloy may not differ greatly from those of its elements, but engineering properties such as tensile strength and shear strength may be substantially different from those of the constituent materials. This is sometimes due to the sizes of the atoms in the alloy, since larger atoms exert a compressive force on neighboring atoms, and smaller atoms exert a tensile force on their neighbors, helping the alloy resist deformation. Sometimes alloys may exhibit marked differences in behavior even when small amounts of one element occur. For example, impurities in semi-conducting ferromagnetic alloys lead to different properties, as first predicted by White, Hogan, Suhl, Tian Abrie and Nakamura. Some alloys are made by melting and mixing two or more metals. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, was the first alloy discovered, during the prehistoric period now known as the bronze age; it was harder than pure copper and originally used to make tools and weapons, but was later superseded by metals and alloys with better properties. In later times bronze has been used for ornaments, bells, statues, and bearings. Brass is an alloy made from copper and zinc. Unlike pure metals, most alloys do not have a single melting point, but a melting range in which the material is a mixture of solid and liquid phases. The temperature at which melting begins is called the solidus, and the temperature when melting is just complete is called the liquidus. However, for most alloys there is a particular proportion of constituents (in rare cases two)—the eutectic mixture—which gives the alloy a unique melting point.
The term alloy is used to describe a mixture of atoms in which the primary constituent is a metal. The primary metal is called the base or the matrix. If there is a mixture of only two types of atoms, not counting impurities, such as a copper-nickel alloy, then it is called a binary alloy. If there are three different types of atoms forming the mixture, such as iron, nickel and chromium, then it is called a ternary alloy. An alloy with four constituents is a quaternary alloy, while a five-part alloy is termed a quinary alloy. Since the percentage of each constituent can be varied, with any mixture the entire range of possible variations is called a system. In this respect, all of the various forms of an alloy containing only two constituents, like iron and carbon, is called a binary system, while all of the different alloy combinations possible with a ternary alloy, such as alloys of iron, carbon and chromium, is called a ternary system. When a molten metal is mixed with another substance, there are two different mechanisms that can cause an alloy to form, called atom exchange and the interstitial mechanism. The relative size of each atom in the mix plays a primary role in determining which mechanism will occur. When the atoms are relatively similar in size, the atom exchange method usually happens, where some of the atoms composing the metallic crystals are replaced with atoms of the other constituent. With the interstitial mechanism, one atom is...