In 1990s, S&T researchers studied secrets of Titanic steel

Apr 11, 2012

Eighty-five years after the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic Ocean, a faculty member at Missouri University of Science and Technology answered one of maritime sleuths' burning questions about the disaster: Was the steel used to build the ship at fault?

The definitely played a role, because it was not as "impact-resistant" as modern steel, said Dr. Phil Leighly, who studied steel from the Titanic in 1996 and 1997. A professor emeritus of metallurgical engineering at Missouri S&T (which was then known as the University of Missouri-Rolla), Leighly said the steel was so brittle that in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic it could shatter easily. But it also was the best steel available at the time, he said.

His research was published in the January 2008 issue of the Journal of Metals.

Now deceased, Leighly spent five months examining samples of the Titanic wreckage. Assisting him was Dr. F. Scott Miller, now an associate teaching professor of materials science and engineering at Missouri S&T. While working on his Ph.D., Miller conducted X-ray microanalysis of the samples of Titanic steel that Leighly had obtained from RMS Titanic Inc., the steward of all artifacts from the luxury ocean liner.

In September 1996, Leighly received three wooden crates containing more than 400 pounds of the three-quarter-inch steel plate of the Titanic's hull. In the months that followed, Leighly, Miller and other S&T researchers tested the material and confirmed that it was inferior to steel used in shipbuilding today. The quality of that steel was a factor in the catastrophe.

Survivors of the Titanic disaster of April 15, 1912, recall hearing loud cracking noises as the ship sank. "When steel breaks," Leighly said, "you expect a groaning, not a cracking sound ... unless the steel is brittle" and therefore prone to fracture.

In the early 1900s, manufacturers in the United Kingdom commonly produced steel in open-hearth furnaces. The process results in "semi-killed" steel, which has relatively high concentrations of phosphorus, oxygen and sulfur, and a low concentration of nitrogen and silicon.

Miller's tests on the Titanic steel back in 1996 and 1997 revealed that the materials matched that semi-killed profile.

The relatively high amounts of phosphorus, oxygen and sulfur in semi-killed steel make it more brittle at low temperatures than modern steel.

"It was bad steel; there's no question," Leighly said, "but probably the best plain carbon ship plate available at the time."

Today, Miller says Leighly's findings should serve as a cautionary tale about the inherent limits of design. The ocean liner's bulkheads were supposed to be watertight, for example, but they weren't.

As Leighly himself said in 1997, "It's easy to point a finger and say, 'Bad steel.' But it's uncomfortable to point at yourself and say, 'Bad design.'"

More than 1,500 of the liner's 2,227 passengers died after the struck an iceberg in the , some 350 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The ship struck the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. April 14, 1912. It sank at 2:20 a.m. April 15.

Explore further: Producing biodegradable plastic just got cheaper and greener

Related Stories

The role of physics in the sinking of the Titanic

Apr 02, 2012

A century on from the sinking of the Titanic, Physics World science writer Richard Corfield takes a look at the cascade of events that led to the demise of the 'unsinkable' ship, taking into account the ma ...

'Titanic' mapping expedition sets sail (Update)

Aug 24, 2010

A high-tech expedition that aims to create a detailed map of the wreckage of the Titanic, nearly a hundred years after the fabled ship sank in the Atlantic, set sail from Canada on Monday. ...

Mapping of 'Titanic' wreck begins

Aug 27, 2010

A high-tech expedition that aims to create a detailed map of the wreckage of the Titanic has begun exploring the ocean floor where the ship sank nearly one hundred years ago, the crew said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Aluminum clusters shut down molecular fuel factory

Jul 06, 2015

Despite decades of industrial use, the exact chemical transformations occurring within zeolites, a common material used in the conversion of oil to gasoline, remain poorly understood. Now scientists have ...

New catalyst does more with less platinum

Jul 06, 2015

Platinum is a highly reactive and in-demand catalyst across the chemical and energy industries, but a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison and Georgia Institute of Technology scientists could reduce the ...

Learning from biology to accelerate discovery

Jul 06, 2015

A spider's web is one of the most intricate constructions in nature, but its precious silk has more than one use. Silk threads can be used as draglines, guidelines, anchors, pheromonal trails, nest lining, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.