The Effects of Water on Steel Wool

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Comprised of woven steel fibers, steel wool is an effective tool for removing stubborn dirt, grease or old paint from non-porous surfaces. Although steel wool can be used alone, often it is combined with water or a soap solution to enhance its effectiveness. Understanding the impact of water and other materials on steel wool is critical to using steel wool appropriately.

Composition of Steel Wool

  • Steel wool is composed of fibers made of fine strands of steel. An alloy of iron and coal, steel is preferred by manufacturers to iron because of the ease with which it can be shaped and manipulated. As an alloy of iron, however, steel is still susceptible to oxidation unless treated and converted into stainless steel.

Combination of Water and Steel Wool

  • Although it is commonly believed that water causes the oxidation, or rusting, process to occur in metals, water merely exposes metal more effectively to oxygen ions. Water acts as a conduit for ions to travel more quickly between the air and the water. In addition, water can wash away protective coatings, including dust and grease, that would otherwise prevent oxidation.

Role of Oxygen

  • Oxygen ions react with iron atoms to produce iron oxide, commonly known as rust. This oxidation process generates heat, causing steel wool to heat the water that it is placed in. Water serves as the conduit for the oxygen ions in the air to combine with the iron present within the steel wool.

Steel Wool in the Air

  • Because air contains water vapor, the steel wool oxidation reaction will occur when steel wool is exposed merely to ambient air. Higher levels of humidity will accelerate this process, but it will still be a more gradual process than oxidation that occurs when steel wool is dipped into water.

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