Steel is an alloy consisting mostly of iron, with a carbon content between 0.2% and 2.1% by weight, depending on the grade. Carbon is the most cost-effective alloying material for iron, but various other alloying elements are used such as manganese, chromium, vanadium, and tungsten. Carbon and other elements act as a hardening agent, preventing dislocations in the iron atom crystal lattice from sliding past one another. Varying the amount of alloying elements and form of their presence in the steel (solute elements, precipitated phase) controls qualities such as the hardness, ductility, and tensile strength of the resulting steel. Steel with increased carbon content can be made harder and stronger than iron, but is also less ductile.
Alloys with a higher carbon content are known as cast iron because of their lower melting point and castability. Steel is also distinguished from wrought iron, which can contain a small amount of carbon, but it is included in the form of slag inclusions. Two distinguishing factors are steel's increased rust resistance and better weldability.
Though steel had been produced by various inefficient methods long before the Renaissance, its use became more common after more efficient production methods were devised in the 17th century. With the invention of the Bessemer process in the mid-19th century, steel became a relatively inexpensive mass-produced material. Further refinements in the process, such as basic oxygen steelmaking, further lowered the cost of production while increasing the quality of the metal. Today, steel is one of the most common materials in the world and is a major component in buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, automobiles, machines, and appliances. Modern steel is generally identified by various grades of steel defined by various standards organizations.