Grey Cast Iron

According to the European standard DIN EN 1561, grey cast iron (EN-GJL), also known more simply as “gray iron”) is a carbon-containing iron material; the carbon present in the material is almost entirely present as flake graphite (in lamellar form) in the microstructure. The letters “GJL” in the German designation stand for G = Gusswerkstoff (= cast material); J = (I) iron; and L = lamellar. In the past, the denominations GG or Grauguss (lit: gray-cast) were commonly used in the German-speaking world. The graphite is present in a 3-dimensional structure which can be imagined as looking something like a bundle of salad leaves. When microsectioned, these “leaves” (flakes) then appear as plates or lamellae.

Gray iron with lamellar graphite has properties which make it an excellent choice for casting, the key term here being: freedom of design. This suitability for casting allows extremely economical production of components, as grey cast iron is the least expensive cast iron material. However, it must be admitted that it also possesses – apart from its unmatched damping ability – the comparatively worst mechanical properties among the cast irons.

It has both fairly low strength (between 150 and 300 N/mm2), and is extremely brittle – a property which many an experienced Master Caster has made use of in memorable demonstrations for the benefit of new apprentices. A thin-walled gray iron casting is picked up, the master takes a sniff, and says, “Yup, smells like gray iron” – before tossing the casting high up in the air and watching it shatter on the concrete floor of the workshop in front of the wide eyes of the startled apprentice.

Grey cast iron it is – SG cast iron would have survived such treatment looking a bit “beat up”, at worst. Proof of the keenly trained nose of a Master Caster, who can smell the difference after so many years! (Especially after glancing at the tag on the material beforehand)…

The comparatively low strength of cast iron with flake graphite can be explained by its heterogeneous microstructure. The graphite precipitates during solidification and forms thin veins throughout a pearlitic or ferritic matrix (depending on how quickly the material is cooled). These thin veins act as internal notches, which weaken the matrix, and at the tips of which internal stresses peak.

The combination of these effects produces a marked decrease in strength compared to SG cast iron. However, the (for all practical purposes) incompressible flakes of graphite can support higher compressive loads – the ultimate compressive strength is some 3 to 4 times higher than the tensile strength. Hence, cast iron containing flake graphite is suitable for use as gear housings, brake discs, engine blocks, pallets, frames, cable spools, machine beds, and a variety of other similar parts.

In the drainage and sewage sector, grey cast iron holds unquestioned sovereignty among the production materials – perhaps most visible as manhole covers on city streets, but covering a wide range of products. Not least for that reason, cast iron containing flake (lamellar) graphite is the most-produced material in the casting sector – and in fact, its yearly production outstrips that of all other cast iron materials combined.

In addition, grey cast iron is also fairly insensitive to notches; because the graphite lamellae embedded in the microstructure already constitute notches in the material, additional external notches resulting from operation or production do not have as strong an effect as they would for other types of cast iron or for steel. The structural strength of gray iron components under dynamic loading is therefore barely affected by the form of the part.

A material with a long history – and one whose history is still continuing, with good reason. In this era of Sustainable Development and Green Production, one thing must be kept in mind: The basis of our raw material is scrap – i.e., rubbish. Cast iron, and most especially gray iron with flake graphite, consists of almost 100% recycled material – not like the (not especially efficient) packaging for fruits and vegetables made from old yogurt containers, which is hailed by politicians of all stripes as an amazing innovation to save the environment. Not bad for an “old warhorse” of a material with a history stretching back to the beginnings of industrialization –we’ll just continue with production while we wait for the politicians to notice.

We will find a suitable solution.