Molar volume vs. pressure for α iron at room temperature
At least four allotropes of iron (differing atom arrangements in the solid) are known, conventionally denoted α, γ, δ, and ε.
The first three forms are observed at ordinary pressures. As molten iron cools past its freezing point of 1538 °C, it crystallizes into its δ allotrope, which has a body-centered cubic (bcc) crystal structure. As it cools further to 1394 °C, it changes to its γ-iron allotrope, a face-centered cubic (fcc) crystal structure, or austenite. At 912 °C and below, the crystal structure again becomes the bcc α-iron allotrope.
The physical properties of iron at very high pressures and temperatures have also been studied extensively, because of their relevance to theories about the cores of the Earth and other planets. Above approximately 10 GPa and temperatures of a few hundred kelvin or less, α-iron changes into another hexagonal close-packed (hcp) structure, which is also known as ε-iron. The higher-temperature γ-phase also changes into ε-iron, but does so at higher pressure.
Some controversial experimental evidence exists for a stable β phase at pressures above 50 GPa and temperatures of at least 1500 K. It is supposed to have an orthorhombic or a double hcp structure. (Confusingly, the term "β-iron" is sometimes also used to refer to α-iron above its Curie point, when it changes from being ferromagnetic to paramagnetic, even though its crystal structure has not changed.)
The inner core of the Earth is generally presumed to consist of an iron-nickel alloy with ε (or β) structure.
Melting and boiling points
The melting and boiling points of iron, along with its enthalpy of atomization, are lower than those of the earlier 3d elements from scandium to chromium, showing the lessened contribution of the 3d electrons to metallic bonding as they are attracted more and more into the inert core by the nucleus; however, they are higher than the values for the previous element manganese because that element has a half-filled 3d subshell and consequently its d-electrons are not easily delocalized. This same trend appears for ruthenium but not osmium.
The melting point of iron is experimentally well defined for pressures less than 50 GPa. For greater pressures, published data (as of 2007) still varies by tens of gigapascals and over a thousand kelvin.
Magnetization curves of 9 ferromagnetic materials, showing saturation. 1.
Sheet steel, 2.
Silicon steel, 3.
Cast steel, 4.
Tungsten steel, 5.
Magnet steel, 6.
Cast iron, 7.
Below its Curie point of 770 °C, α-iron changes from paramagnetic to ferromagnetic: the spins of the two unpaired electrons in each atom generally align with the spins of its neighbors, creating an overall magnetic field. This happens because the orbitals of those two electrons (dz2 and dx2 − y2) do not point toward neighboring atoms in the lattice, and therefore are not involved in metallic bonding.
In the absence of an external source of magnetic field, the atoms get spontaneously partitioned into magnetic domains, about 10 micrometers across, such that the atoms in each domain have parallel spins, but different domains have other orientations. Thus a macroscopic piece of iron will have a nearly zero overall magnetic field.
Application of an external magnetic field causes the domains that are magnetized in the same general direction to grow at the expense of adjacent ones that point in other directions, reinforcing the external field. This effect is exploited in devices that needs to channel magnetic fields, such as electrical transformers, magnetic recording heads, and electric motors. Impurities, lattice defects, or grain and particle boundaries can "pin" the domains in the new positions, so that the effect persists even after the external field is removed -- thus turning the iron object into a (permanent) magnet.
Similar behavior is exhibited by some iron compounds, such as the ferrites and the mineral magnetite, a crystalline form of the mixed iron(II,III) oxide Fe
4 (although the atomic-scale mechanism, ferrimagnetism, is somewhat different). Pieces of magnetite with natural permanent magnetization (lodestones) provided the earliest compasses for navigation. Particles of magnetite were extensively used in magnetic recording media such as core memories, magnetic tapes, floppies, and disks, until they were replaced by cobalt-based materials.
Iron has four stable isotopes: 54Fe (5.845% of natural iron), 56Fe (91.754%), 57Fe (2.119%) and 58Fe (0.282%). 20-30 artificial isotopes have also been created. Of these stable isotopes, only 57Fe has a nuclear spin (−1⁄2). The nuclide 54Fe theoretically can undergo double electron capture to 54Cr, but the process has never been observed and only a lower limit on the half-life of 3.1×1022 years has been established.
60Fe is an extinct radionuclide of long half-life (2.6 million years). It is not found on Earth, but its ultimate decay product is its granddaughter, the stable nuclide 60Ni. Much of the past work on isotopic composition of iron has focused on the nucleosynthesis of 60Fe through studies of meteorites and ore formation. In the last decade, advances in mass spectrometry have allowed the detection and quantification of minute, naturally occurring variations in the ratios of the stable isotopes of iron. Much of this work is driven by the Earth and planetary science communities, although applications to biological and industrial systems are emerging.
In phases of the meteorites Semarkona and Chervony Kut, a correlation between the concentration of 60Ni, the granddaughter of 60Fe, and the abundance of the stable iron isotopes provided evidence for the existence of 60Fe at the time of formation of the Solar System. Possibly the energy released by the decay of 60Fe, along with that released by 26Al, contributed to the remelting and differentiation of asteroids after their formation 4.6 billion years ago. The abundance of 60Ni present in extraterrestrial material may bring further insight into the origin and early history of the Solar System.
The most abundant iron isotope 56Fe is of particular interest to nuclear scientists because it represents the most common endpoint of nucleosynthesis. Since 56Ni (14 alpha particles) is easily produced from lighter nuclei in the alpha process in nuclear reactions in supernovae (see silicon burning process), it is the endpoint of fusion chains inside extremely massive stars, since addition of another alpha particle, resulting in 60Zn, requires a great deal more energy. This 56Ni, which has a half-life of about 6 days, is created in quantity in these stars, but soon decays by two successive positron emissions within supernova decay products in the supernova remnant gas cloud, first to radioactive 56Co, and then to stable 56Fe. As such, iron is the most abundant element in the core of red giants, and is the most abundant metal in iron meteorites and in the dense metal cores of planets such as Earth. It is also very common in the universe, relative to other stable metals of approximately the same atomic weight. Iron is the sixth most abundant element in the Universe, and the most common refractory element.
Although a further tiny energy gain could be extracted by synthesizing 62Ni, which has a marginally higher binding energy than 56Fe, conditions in stars are unsuitable for this process. Element production in supernovas and distribution on Earth greatly favor iron over nickel, and in any case, 56Fe still has a lower mass per nucleon than 62Ni due to its higher fraction of lighter protons. Hence, elements heavier than iron require a supernova for their formation, involving rapid neutron capture by starting 56Fe nuclei.
In the far future of the universe, assuming that proton decay does not occur, cold fusion occurring via quantum tunnelling would cause the light nuclei in ordinary matter to fuse into 56Fe nuclei. Fission and alpha-particle emission would then make heavy nuclei decay into iron, converting all stellar-mass objects to cold spheres of pure iron.