Editorial Feature

Which Imaging Techniques are Best for Analyzing Steel?

Steel serves as the backbone of many industries like construction, manufacturing, military, aerospace, medical and more. Analyzing the microstructure of steel is essential to understanding its mechanical properties, identifying potential defects, and ensuring its overall quality. This article compares different imaging techniques used for steel analysis and its microstructures and discusses recent relevant developments.

Imaging Steel, steel analysis

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Imaging Techniques for Analyzing Steel

Steel, used in many industrial sectors, is in great demand due to its specific mechanical and metallurgical properties. Imaging techniques like X-ray Diffraction (XRD), optical microscopy, and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) are critical in this regard since they provide valuable information about the properties of steel and its microstructure. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the advantages and limitations of these imaging techniques to know which ones are best for analyzing steel.

Optical Microscopy

Optical microscopy is one of the foundational techniques in steel analysis due to its simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and high-resolution images. Optical microscopy allows for the identification of phases, inclusions, and other microstructural elements, offering valuable insights into the quality and composition of the steel. However, it has limitations when it comes to finer details since the resolution is restricted by the wavelength of visible light, preventing a deeper exploration of the steel microstructure.

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM)

Scanning electron microscopy utilizes a focused beam of electrons to create high-resolution, three-dimensional images of steel surfaces, revealing fine details, such as individual grains' morphology and the distribution of phases within the microstructure. This ability to capture images at nanoscale resolutions makes scanning electron microscopy a great tool for steel analysis.

Moreover, it can be coupled with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to analyze the elemental composition of different phases in the steel microstructure, further enhancing the depth of information obtained. For instance, a 2020 study utilized 3D X-ray Computed Tomography (XCT) and automated scanning electron microscopy coupled with Energy-Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) to analyze titanium micro-alloyed low-carbon steels.

The steel analysis provided details on the average shape, number, size, and composition of inclusions, categorizing them as calcium aluminates and titanium nitrides. Meanwhile, XCT steel analysis at resolutions of 1.8 µm and 590 nm offered insights into the 3D morphologies of the inclusions, detecting a wide size range from 0.75 µm to 201.4 µm. The combination of these two techniques yielded comprehensive quantified information about inclusions in steel, providing valuable data for understanding and improving steel microstructures.

X-ray Diffraction (XRD)

When X-rays interact with the crystalline structure of steel, they produce diffraction patterns that can be analyzed to identify the phases present and their respective orientations. XRD is especially effective for characterizing the crystallographic phases of steel, offering information about the arrangement of its atoms. Researchers can gain valuable insights into the transformation of steel phases under different conditions, helping optimize heat treatments and manufacturing processes by employing XRD. X-ray Diffraction technique is particularly relevant for alloy analysis, aiding in the identification of specific phases and their proportions within the steel microstructure.

Recent Studies

WAAM Steel's Structural Suitability

In a recent study on 3D printing of steel using Wire and Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM) for large-sized components, researchers focused on the mechanical properties of 3D printed Union K 40-GMAW steel. Tensile coupon testing and X-ray Computed Tomography (XCT) were employed to assess the material's performance, examining factors such as printing orientation, interfacial variation between layers, and porosity. The key finding revealed that WAAM steel met the requirements for structural steel grades specified by Eurocode-3, making it suitable for building structures.

Advanced Imaging in Corrosion Analysis

In a recent study, researchers investigated the impact of temperature on the corrosion behavior of 1Cr carbon steel in a 1 wt. % NaCl aqueous solution saturated with CO2. The study employed advanced imaging techniques, including X-ray Computed Tomography (CT), Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy (EIS), and Linear Polarization Resistance (LPR) to analyze the steel's corrosion process.

X-ray CT provided a 3D structure of the corrosion scale, revealing protective FeCO3 formation with distinct layers at 80˚C. The imaging results were correlated with electrochemical investigations, emphasizing the importance of temperature in influencing corrosion kinetics and FeCO3 precipitation. The study demonstrated that at 80˚C, a denser FeCO3 layer formed, resulting in a tenfold reduction in the corrosion rate compared to 40˚C. The findings highlight the significance of temperature control in mitigating steel corrosion, which is crucial for industries like oil and gas.


In conclusion, precise imaging techniques play a pivotal role in comprehensive steel analysis. With its simplicity and cost-effectiveness, optical microscopy provides valuable insights into steel phases and inclusions, though it is limited in fine details. Similarly, X-ray Diffraction (XRD) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) are powerful tools for characterizing crystalline phases, aiding in steel analysis and optimizing manufacturing processes. The best results are produced when different methods are combined, which helps reduce their limitations.

More from AZoOptics: What is Chemiluminescence Gas Analysis?

References and Further Reading

Al-Nabulsi, Z., Mottram, J. T., Gillie, M., Kourra, N., & Williams, M. A. (2021). Mechanical and X ray computed tomography characterization of a WAAM 3D printed steel plate for structural engineering applications. Construction and Building Materials. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2020.121700

Bandi, B., Santillana, B., Tiekink, W., Koura, N., Williams, M., & Srirangam, P. (2020). 2D automated SEM and 3D X-ray computed tomography study on inclusion analysis of steels. Ironmaking & Steelmaking. https://doi.org/10.1080/03019233.2019.1652437

Evident Corporation - Industrial Microscopy. (2023, April 20). How to Analyze Nonmetallic Inclusions in Steel Quality Control. AZoM. Retrieved on December 10, 2023 from https://www.azom.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=18904

Rizzo, R., Baier, S., Rogowska, M., & Ambat, R. (2020). An electrochemical and X-ray computed tomography investigation of the effect of temperature on CO2 corrosion of 1Cr carbon steel. Corrosion Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.corsci.2020.108471

Robuschi, S., Tengattini, A., Dijkstra, J., Fernandez, I., & Lundgren, K. (2021). A closer look at corrosion of steel reinforcement bars in concrete using 3D neutron and X-ray computed tomography. Cement and Concrete Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cemconres.2021.106439

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Taha Khan

Written by

Taha Khan

Taha graduated from HITEC University Taxila with a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering. During his studies, he worked on several research projects related to Mechanics of Materials, Machine Design, Heat and Mass Transfer, and Robotics. After graduating, Taha worked as a Research Executive for 2 years at an IT company (Immentia). He has also worked as a freelance content creator at Lancerhop. In the meantime, Taha did his NEBOSH IGC certification and expanded his career opportunities.  


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