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Difference Between Carbon Graphite And Carbon Steel

Carbon is a versatile element that forms the basis of various materials, each with unique properties and applications. Two widely used carbon-based materials are carbon graphite and carbon steel. Despite both being derived from carbon, they have vastly different structures, characteristics, and applications. Understanding the differences between carbon graphite and carbon steel is essential for selecting the appropriate material for specific industries and applications.In this comprehensive article, we will explore the fundamental differences between carbon graphite and carbon steel. We will delve into their compositions, structures, mechanical properties, electrical and thermal conductivities, corrosion resistance, applications, and environmental impact.

By the end of this article, readers will have a thorough understanding of the distinct properties and advantages of carbon graphite and carbon steel.

Composition and Structure

  • Carbon Graphite: Carbon graphite is a crystalline form of carbon with a unique structure. It consists of carbon atoms arranged in layers that form a hexagonal lattice. These layers are weakly bonded together by van der Waals forces, resulting in a soft and slippery material. This unique atomic arrangement imparts properties like high thermal and electrical conductivity and lubricity. Graphite is often considered a form of carbon with strong covalent bonds within the layers but weak interactions between the layers.
  • Carbon Steel: Carbon steel, on the other hand, is an alloy of iron and carbon, with carbon being the primary alloying element. It typically contains small amounts of other elements, such as manganese, silicon, and sometimes traces of other elements, to enhance specific properties. The structure of carbon steel is mainly composed of iron crystals with dispersed carbon atoms. Depending on the carbon content, carbon steel can be further categorized into low carbon steel, medium carbon steel, high carbon steel, and ultra-high carbon steel.

Mechanical Properties

  • Carbon Graphite: Carbon graphite is known for its low density and relatively low mechanical strength. It is a soft and brittle material with a hardness typically ranging from 1 to 2 on the Mohs scale. While graphite exhibits high thermal and electrical conductivity within the layers, it lacks significant tensile strength and impact resistance. Due to its brittleness, carbon graphite is not suitable for load-bearing applications that require high strength and toughness.
  • Carbon Steel: Carbon steel, on the other hand, exhibits a wide range of mechanical properties depending on its carbon content and other alloying elements. Low carbon steel (containing up to 0.30% carbon) is relatively soft and ductile, making it easily formable and weldable. Medium carbon steel (0.30% to 0.60% carbon) has increased strength and hardness, while high carbon steel (up to 2.1% carbon) is much harder and stronger. The hardness, tensile strength, yield strength, and impact resistance of carbon steel vary significantly based on the specific grade and heat treatment.

Below is a table chart comparing the mechanical properties of carbon graphite and carbon steel:

Mechanical PropertyCarbon GraphiteCarbon Steel
DensityLow densityVaries with carbon content
(1.5 – 2.3 g/cm³)(Typically 7.85 g/cm³ for mild steel)
HardnessSoftVaries with carbon content
(Typically 1-2 on the Mohs scale)(Depends on the type of carbon steel)
Tensile StrengthLowModerate to high
(Varies based on the specific grade)
Yield StrengthLowModerate to high
(Varies based on the specific grade)
(Ability to deform plastically without
Modulus of ElasticityLowHigh
(Typically 5-15 GPa)(Varies based on the specific grade)
Impact ResistanceLowModerate to high
(Brittle material)(Depends on the type of carbon steel)
Wear ResistanceLowHigh
(Brittle material)(Carbon steel can be hardened for increased
wear resistance)
Fatigue StrengthLowModerate to high
(Brittle material)(Depends on the type of carbon steel)
Thermal ConductivityHighLow to moderate
(200-300 W/m·K)(Varies based on the specific grade)
Electrical ConductivityHighLow
(Graphite is an excellent conductor(Carbon steel is a poor conductor of
within the layers)electricity)

Please note that the values presented in the table are general characteristics and can vary based on the specific grade or type of carbon graphite and carbon steel being used. Mechanical properties are also influenced by factors such as the manufacturing process, heat treatment, and alloying elements in the case of carbon steel.

Electrical and Thermal Conductivities

  • Carbon Graphite: Graphite is an excellent conductor of electricity and heat within the layers. Its high electrical conductivity makes it valuable in electrical applications, such as electrodes in batteries, motor brushes, and current collectors in fuel cells. Similarly, its high thermal conductivity allows for efficient heat dissipation, making it suitable for thermal management solutions in electronics.
  • Carbon Steel: Carbon steel, being primarily composed of iron, is not an efficient conductor of electricity. While it has moderate thermal conductivity, it is much lower than that of graphite. However, carbon steel’s electrical and thermal properties can be enhanced by alloying it with other elements or using specific heat treatments.

Corrosion Resistance

  • Carbon Graphite: Graphite is relatively inert and can exhibit good resistance to chemical corrosion in certain environments. However, at high temperatures, graphite is susceptible to oxidation, which can lead to its degradation.
  • Carbon Steel: Carbon steel, particularly the lower carbon content grades, is prone to corrosion due to its iron content. It readily reacts with oxygen and moisture in the environment to form iron oxide (rust). However, carbon steel’s corrosion resistance can be improved by alloying it with elements like chromium and nickel or by applying protective coatings, such as paint or galvanization.


Carbon Graphite: Carbon graphite’s unique properties make it suitable for specialized applications. Some common applications of graphite include:

  • Electric brushes and contacts in motors and generators.
  • Electrodes in batteries, fuel cells, and electrolysis processes.
  • Lubrication in mechanical systems, reducing friction and wear.
  • High-temperature crucibles and molds in metallurgy and foundries.
  • Thermal management solutions in electronics and heat sinks.

Carbon Steel: Carbon steel’s versatility and strength make it one of the most widely used materials across various industries. Its applications span from structural components to everyday items. Some common applications of carbon steel include:

  • Building construction and infrastructure, including beams, columns, and reinforcement bars.
  • Automotive parts, such as chassis, body panels, and engine components.
  • Tools and machinery, such as wrenches, hammers, and gears.
  • Pipelines and tubing for fluid transportation in industries like oil and gas.
  • Nails, screws, and bolts for fastening applications.

Environmental Impact

  • Carbon Graphite: Carbon graphite is considered to have a low environmental impact, primarily because it is composed of carbon, which is a naturally occurring element. Additionally, graphite is widely available and abundant in nature. However, the mining and refining processes required to obtain high-quality graphite can have environmental implications, especially when not conducted responsibly.
  • Carbon Steel: The production of carbon steel, particularly in large quantities, has a relatively higher environmental impact compared to carbon graphite. The extraction of iron ore and the process of converting it into steel involves significant energy consumption and releases greenhouse gases. The recycling of carbon steel can mitigate some of these environmental concerns.

Carbon graphite and carbon steel are two distinct materials with unique properties and applications. While carbon graphite excels in electrical and thermal conductivity, lubricity, and certain specialized applications, carbon steel is valued for its strength, ductility, and versatility in various industries. Each material serves specific purposes and contributes to the advancement of modern technology, infrastructure, and everyday products.

Understanding the differences between carbon graphite and carbon steel is crucial for engineers, manufacturers, and consumers to make informed decisions regarding material selection for their specific requirements. Both materials play integral roles in shaping our world, and their distinct properties continue to drive innovation and progress across various industries.