Selection of stainless steels for handling nitric acid (HNO3)

Introduction

Nitric acid is strongly oxidising and promotes the resistance of stainless steel to corrosion.
Generally stainless steels are resistant to corrosion in nitric acid. Nitric acid is used in the chemical 'passivation' of stainless steels.

Commercially concentrated acid is around 65 wt % (sg = 1.40)
(Higher concentrations obtained by removing water, which can involve the use of sulphuric acid, which has a high affinity for water.)

Corrosion resistance of stainless steels

Nitric acid is strongly oxidising and attacks most metals but due to its powerful oxidising nature, it promotes the resistance of stainless steel to corrosion.

Generally stainless steels are resistant to corrosion in nitric acid over a wide range of concentration and temperature.

The 'helpful' oxidising properties of nitric acid are used in the chemical 'passivation' of stainless steels.

The iso-corrosion diagram 0.1mm/year lines for the 304 and 316 types coincide (purple).
(The broken line represents the boiling point)

 

 

 

 See Corrosion Handbook for source data.

This shows that the 304 types can be used over a wide range of concentration and temperature, up to 95%, for storage applications.
The 304 types are preferable to 316 types for nitric acid applications however.
This is an exception to the 'general rule' for stainless steels where the 316 types are normally found to be more corrosion resistant than 304 types.

Over 95% concentration, aluminium alloys should be considered OR 4% silicon stainless steels.

Any additional chlorides or fluorides in nitric acid may increase corrosion rates by pitting.

Risk of localised corrosion in concentrated acids

Localised attack at grain boundaries (IC) can occur in hot concentrated nitric acid.

This can occur in the heat-affected-zone (HAZ) of welds.
Prolonged heating in a range of around 600-800 degC, followed by exposure to concentrated nitric acid, can also result in localised attack, due to the precipitation of the brittle "intermetallic" (iron-chromium) compounds (sigma phase).

Avoiding localised attack in concentrated acid

To avoid the risk of localised corrosion, especially where post weld heat treatment is impractical, the low carbon, 304L types should be considered.
Solution heat treatment (1050 -1100 degC followed by fast cooling) on the standard carbon 304 type can be considered as an alternative. These treatments should also re-dissolve any sigma formed.

Compostions of 304L type have been used with silicon, phosphorous & sulphur limited to very low residual levels to improve the resistance in hot concentrated nitric acid.

Uses for nitric acid with stainless steels

Nitric acid is widely used in the chemical 'passivation' of stainless steels.

Passivation of stainless steels

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