Alloys are used in a wide variety of applications. In some cases, a combination of metals may reduce the overall cost of the material while preserving important properties. In other cases, the combination of metals imparts synergistic properties to the constituent metal elements such as corrosion resistance or mechanical strength. Examples of alloys are steel, solder, brass, pewter, duralumin, bronze and amalgams.
The alloy constituents are usually measured by mass percentage for practical applications, and in atomic fraction for basic science studies. Alloys are usually classified as substitutional or interstitial alloys, depending on the atomic arrangement that forms the alloy. They can be further classified as homogeneous (consisting of a single phase), or heterogeneous (consisting of two or more phases) or intermetallic.
An alloy is a mixture of chemical elements, which forms an impure substance (admixture) that retains the characteristics of a metal. An alloy is distinct from an impure metal in that, with an alloy, the added elements are well controlled to produce desirable properties, while impure metals such as wrought iron are less controlled, but are often considered useful. Alloys are made by mixing two or more elements, at least one of which is a metal. This is usually called the primary metal or the base metal, and the name of this metal may also be the name of the alloy. The other constituents may or may not be metals but, when mixed with the molten base, they will be soluble and dissolve into the mixture. The mechanical properties of alloys will often be quite different from those of its individual constituents. A metal that is normally very soft (malleable), such as aluminium, can be altered by alloying it with another soft metal, such as copper. Although both metals are very soft and ductile, the resulting aluminium alloy will have much greater strength. Adding a small amount of non-metallic carbon to iron trades its great ductility for the greater strength of an alloy called steel. Due to its very-high strength, but still substantial toughness, and its ability to be greatly altered by heat treatment, steel is one of the most useful and common alloys in modern use. By adding chromium to steel, its resistance to corrosion can be enhanced, creating stainless steel, while adding silicon will alter its electrical characteristics, producing silicon steel.
Like oil and water, a molten metal may not always mix with another element. For example, pure iron is almost completely insoluble with copper. Even when the constituents are soluble, each will usually have a saturation point, beyond which no more of the constituent can be added. Iron, for example, can hold a maximum of 6.67% carbon. Although the elements of an alloy usually must be soluble in the liquid state, they may not always be soluble in the solid state. If the metals remain soluble when solid, the alloy forms a solid solution, becoming a homogeneous structure consisting of identical crystals, called a phase. If as the mixture cools the constituents become insoluble, they may separate to form two or more different types of crystals, creating a heterogeneous microstructure of different phases, some with more of one constituent than the other phase has. However, in other alloys, the insoluble elements may not separate until after crystallization occurs. If cooled very quickly, they first crystallize as a homogeneous phase, but they are supersaturated with the secondary constituents. As time passes, the atoms of these supersaturated alloys can separate from the crystal lattice, becoming more stable, and form a second phase that serve to reinforce the crystals internally. Some alloys, such as electrum which is an alloy consisting of silver and gold, occur naturally. Meteorites are sometimes made of naturally occurring alloys of iron and nickel, but are not native to the Earth. One of the first alloys made by humans was bronze, which is a mixture of the metals tin and copper. Bronze was an extremely useful alloy to the ancients, because it is much stronger and harder than either of its components. Steel was another common alloy. However, in ancient times, it could only be created as an accidental byproduct from the heating of iron ore in fires (smelting) during the manufacture of iron. Other ancient alloys include pewter, brass and pig iron. In the modern age, steel can be created in many forms. Carbon steel can be made by varying only the carbon content, producing soft alloys like mild steel or hard alloys like spring steel. Alloy steels can be made by adding other elements, such as chromium, molybdenum, vanadium or nickel, resulting in alloys such as high-speed steel or tool steel. Small amounts of manganese are usually alloyed with most modern steels because of its ability to remove unwanted impurities, like phosphorus, sulfur and oxygen, which can have detrimental effects on the alloy. However, most alloys were not created until the 1900s, such as various aluminium, titanium, nickel, and magnesium alloys. Some modern superalloys, such as incoloy, inconel, and hastelloy, may consist of a multitude of different elements.
As a noun, the term alloy is used to describe a mixture of atoms in which the primary constituent is a metal. When used as a verb, the term refers to the act of mixing a metal with other elements. The primary metal is called the base, the matrix, or the solvent. The secondary constituents are often called solutes. 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 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. Because 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 alloy combinations possible with a ternary alloy, such as alloys of iron, carbon and chromium, is called a ternary system.