Iron is the base metal of steel. Iron is able to take on two crystalline forms (allotropic forms), body centered cubic and face centered cubic, depending on its temperature. In the body-centered cubic arrangement, there is an iron atom in the center and eight atoms at the vertices of each cubic unit cell; in the face-centered cubic, there is one atom at the center of each of the six faces of the cubic unit cell and eight atoms at its vertices. It is the interaction of the allotropes of iron with the alloying elements, primarily carbon, that gives steel and cast iron their range of unique properties.
In pure iron, the crystal structure has relatively little resistance to the iron atoms slipping past one another, and so pure iron is quite ductile, or soft and easily formed. In steel, small amounts of carbon, other elements, and inclusions within the iron act as hardening agents that prevent the movement of dislocations that are common in the crystal lattices of iron atoms.
The carbon in typical steel alloys may contribute up to 2.14% of its weight. Varying the amount of carbon and many other alloying elements, as well as controlling their chemical and physical makeup in the final steel (either as solute elements, or as precipitated phases), slows the movement of those dislocations that make pure iron ductile, and thus controls and enhances its qualities. These qualities include such things as the hardness, quenching behavior, need for annealing, tempering behavior, yield strength, and tensile strength of the resulting steel. The increase in steel's strength compared to pure iron is possible only by reducing iron's ductility.
Further refinements in the process, such as basic oxygen steelmaking (BOS), largely replaced earlier methods by further lowering the cost of production and increasing the quality of the final product. Today, steel is one of the most common manmade materials in the world, with more than 1.6 billion tons produced annually. Modern steel is generally identified by various grades defined by assorted standards organizations.
Plain carbon-iron alloys with a higher than 2.1% carbon content are known as cast iron. With modern steelmaking techniques such as powder metal forming, it is possible to make very high-carbon (and other alloy material) steels, but such are not common. Cast iron is not malleable even when hot, but it can be formed by casting as it has a lower melting point than steel and good castability properties. Certain compositions of cast iron, while retaining the economies of melting and casting, can be heat treated after casting to make malleable iron or ductile iron objects. Steel is distinguishable from wrought iron (now largely obsolete), which may contain a small amount of carbon but large amounts of slag.