Lead and Lead Alloys

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Lead was one of the first metals known to man. Probably the oldest lead artifact is a figure made about 3000 BC. All civilizations, beginning with the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, have used lead for many ornamental and structural purposes. Many magnificent buildings erected in the 15th and 16th centuries still stand under their original lead roofs...

Lead was one of the first metals known to man. Probably the oldest lead artifact is a figure made about 3000 BC. All civilizations, beginning with the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, have used lead for many ornamental and structural purposes. Many magnificent buildings erected in the 15th and 16th centuries still stand under their original lead roofs.

Compositions and Grades

Bellow is listed the Unified Numbering System (UNS) designations for various pure lead grades and lead-base alloys.

  • Pure leads L50000 - L50099
  • Lead - silver alloys L50100 - L50199
  • Lead - arsenic alloys L50300 - L50399
  • Lead - barium alloys L50500 - L50599
  • Lead - calcium alloys L50700 - L50899
  • Lead - cadmium alloys L50900 - L50999
  • Lead - copper alloys L51100 - L51199
  • Lead - indium alloys L51500 - L51599
  • Lead - lithium alloys L51700 - L51799
  • Lead - antimony alloys L52500 - L53799
  • Lead - tin alloys L54000 - L55099
  • Lead - strontium alloys L55200 - L55299

Grades of lead

Grades are pure lead (also called corroding lead) and common lead (both containing 99.94% min lead), and chemical lead and acid-copper lead (both containing 99.90% min lead). Lead of higher specified purity (99.99%) is also available in commercial quantities. Specifications other than ASTM B 29 for grades of pig lead include federal specification QQ-L-171, German standard DIN 1719, British specification BS 334, Canadian Standard CSA-HP2, and Australian Standard 1812.

Corroding Lead. Most lead produced in the United States is pure (or corroding) lead (99.94% min Pb). Corroding lead which exhibits the outstanding corrosion resistance typical of lead and its alloys. Corroding lead is used in making pigments, lead oxides, and a wide variety of other lead chemicals.

Chemical Lead. Refined lead with a residual copper content of 0.04 to 0.08% and a residual silver content of 0.002 to 0.02% is particularly desirable in the chemical industries and thus is called chemical lead.

Copper-bearing lead provides corrosion protection comparable to that of chemical lead in most applications that require high corrosion resistance. Common lead, which contains higher amounts of silver and bismuth than does corroding lead, is used for battery oxide and general alloying.

Lead-Base Alloys

Because lead is very soft and ductile, it is normally used Commercially as lead alloys. Antimony, tin, arsenic, and calcium are the most common alloying elements. Antimony generally is used to give greater hardness and strength, as in storage battery grids, sheet, pipe, and castings. Antimony contents of lead-antimony alloys can range from 0.5 to 25%, but they are usually 2 to 5%.

Lead-calcium alloys have replaced lead-antimony alloys in a number of applications, in particular, storage battery grids and casting applications. These alloys contain 0.03 to 0.15% Ca. More recently, aluminum has been added to calcium-lead and calcium-tin-lead alloys as a stabilizer for calcium. Adding tin to lead or lead alloys increases hardness and strength, but lead-tin alloys are more commonly used for their good melting, casting, and wetting properties, as in type metals and solders. Tin gives the alloy the ability to wet and bond with metals such as steel and copper; unalloyed lead has poor wetting characteristics. Tin combined with lead and bismuth or cadmium forms the principal ingredient of many low-melting alloys.

Arsenical lead (UNS L50310) is used for cable sheathing. Arsenic is often used to harden lead-antimony alloys and is essential to the production of round dropped shot.

Properties of Lead

The properties of lead that make it useful in a wide variety of applications are density, malleability, lubricity, flexibility, electrical conductivity, and coefficient of thermal expansion, all of which are quite high; and elastic modulus, elastic limit, strength, hardness, and melting point, all of which are quite low. Lead also has good resistance to corrosion under a wide variety of conditions. Lead is easily alloyed with many other metals and casts with little difficulty.

The high density of lead (11.35 g/cm3, at room temperature) makes it very effective in shielding against x-rays and gamma radiation. The combination of high density, high limpness (low stiffness), and high damping capacity makes lead an excellent material for deadening sound and for isolating equipment and structures from mechanical vibrations.

Malleability, softness, and lubricity are three related properties that account for the extensive use of lead in many applications.

The low tensile strength and low creep strength of lead must always be considered when designing lead components. The principal limitation on the use of lead as a structural material is not its low tensile strength but its susceptibility to creep. Lead continuously deforms at low stresses and this deformation ultimately results in failure at stresses far below the ultimate tensile strength. The low strength of lead does not necessarily preclude its use. Lead products can be designed to be self-supporting, or inserts or supports of other materials can be provided. Alloying with other metals, notably calcium or antimony, is a common method of strengthening lead for many applications. In general, consideration should always be given to supporting lead structures by lead-covered steel straps. When lead is used as a lining in a structure made of a stronger material, the lining can be supported by bonding it to the structure. With the development of improved bonding and adhesive techniques, composites of lead with other materials can be made. Composites have improved strength yet also retain the desirable properties of lead.

Products and Applications

The most significant applications of lead and lead alloys are lead-acid storage batteries (in the grid plates, posts, and connector straps), ammunition, cable sheathing, and building construction materials (such as sheet, pipe, solder, and wool for caulking). Other important applications include counterweights, battery clamps and other cast products such as: bearings, ballast, gaskets, type metal, terneplate, and foil. Lead in various forms and combinations is finding increased application as a material for controlling sound and mechanical vibrations. Also, in many forms it is important as shielding against x-rays and, in the nuclear industry, gamma rays. In addition, lead is used as an alloying element in steel and in copper alloys to improve machinability and other characteristics, and it is used in fusible (low-melting) alloys for fire sprinkler systems.

Battery Grids. The largest use of lead is in the manufacture of lead-acid storage batteries. These batteries consist of a series of grid plates made from either cast or wrought calcium lead or antimonial lead that is pasted with a mixture of lead oxides and immersed in sulfuric acid.

Type metals, a class of metals used in the printing industry, generally consist of lead-antimony and tin alloys. Small amounts of copper are added to increase hardness for some applications.

Cable Sheathing. Lead sheathing extruded around electrical power and communication cables gives the most durable protection against moisture and corrosion damage, and provides mechanical protection of the insulation. Chemical lead, 1% antimonial lead, and arsenical lead are most commonly employed for this purpose.

Sheet. Lead sheet is a construction material of major importance in chemical and related industries because lead resists attack by a wide range of chemicals. Lead sheet is also used in building construction for roofing and flashing, shower pans, flooring, x-ray and gamma-ray protection, and vibration damping and soundproofing. Sheet for use in chemical industries and building construction is made from either pure lead or 6% antimonial lead. Calcium-lead and calcium-lead-tin alloys are also suitable for many of these applications.

Pipe. Seamless pipe made from lead and lead alloys is readily fabricated by extrusion. Because of its corrosion resistance and flexibility, lead pipes finds many uses in the chemical industry and in plumbing and water distribution system. Pipe for these applications is made from either chemical lead or 6% antimonial lead.

Solders in the tin-lead system are the most widely used of all joining materials. The low melting range of tin-lead solders makes them ideal for joining most metals by convenient heating methods with little or no damage to heat-sensitive parts. Tin-lead solder alloys can be obtained with melting temperatures as low as 182 °C and as high as 315 °C. Except for the pure metals and the eutectic solder with 63% Sn and 37% Pb, all tin-lead solder alloys melt within a temperature range that varies according to the alloy composition.

Lead-base bearing alloys, which are called lead-base babbitt metals, vary widely in composition but can be categorized into two groups:

  • Alloys of lead, tin, antimony, and, in many instances, arsenic
  • Alloys of lead, calcium, tin, and one or more of the alkaline earth metals

Ammunition. Large quantities of lead are used in ammunition for both military and sporting purposes. Alloys used for shot contain up to 8% Sb and 2% As; those used for bullet cores contain up to 2% Sb.

Terne Coatings. Long terne steel sheet is carbon steel sheet that has been continuously coated by various hot dip processes with terne metal (lead with 3 to 15% Sn). Its excellent solderability and special corrosion resistance make the product well-suited for this application.

Lead foil, generally known as composition metal foil, is usually made by rolling a sandwich of lead between two sheets of tin, producing a tight union of the metals.

Fusible Alloys. Lead alloyed with tin, bismuth, cadmium, indium, or other elements, either alone or in combination, forms alloys with particularly low melting points. Some of these alloys, which melt at temperatures even lower than the boiling point of water, are referred to as fusible alloys.

Anodes made of lead alloys are used in the electrowinning and plating of metals such as manganese, copper, nickel, and zinc. Rolled lead-calcium-tin and lead-silver alloys are the preferred anode materials in these applications, because of their high resistance to corrosion in the sulfuric acid used in electrolytic solutions. Lead anodes also have high resistance to corrosion by seawater, making them economical to use in systems for the cathodic protection of ships and offshore rigs.

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