316L vs. 904L Stainless Steel: What’s the Difference?

PMI gun testing 904L steel

The global maritime industry has been shifting towards greater environmental protection efforts in recent decades. The International Maritime Organization’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (IMO MEPC) works to address issues that affect and threaten our oceans, including air and water pollution, disaster preparedness, and ship recycling.

However, this organization also studies an environmental issue hardly known to the public: ballast water management.

Ballast water tanks keep a ship balanced as she transports cargo, but it must be fully filtered and treated before being released at her port of call. The IMO guidelines require that ships only discharge ballast water, that is:

  • < 10 viable organisms/m3 that are ≥ to 50 micrometers in minimum dimension
  • < 10 viable organisms between 10 micrometers and 50 micrometers in minimum dimension per ml
  • < 1 colony-forming unit (CFU) per 100 milliliters of Toxicogenic Vibrio Cholerae
  • < 250 CFU per 100 ml of Escherichia coli
  • < 100 CFU per 100 ml of Intestinal Enterococci
Organism SizeSize UnitNumber of OrganismsStatusAmountAmount UnitType
Over 50μm10viable organisms1m3Any
10 to 50μm10viable organisms1mLAny
--1Colony-forming units100mLToxicogenic Vibrio Cholerae
--250Colony-forming units100mLEscherichia coli
--100Colony-forming units100mLIntestinal Enterococci

These guidelines have solidified the importance of ballast water management systems (BWMS), making them a vital part of every ship. It is also more important than ever to maintain (and in some cases, upgrade) these systems – mainly because, as Filtersafe Head of Marine Mark Riggio recently said, “[the] global maritime industry [is] shifting its focus to operational compliance.”

The Best Alloy for Ballast Water Management Systems

Seawater filtration systems have a unique challenge to overcome. They must effectively filter debris and microorganisms while also withstanding the high chloride levels in the water, which constantly threaten to corrode the filter and its filtration screen. To achieve this goal, manufacturers often design BWMS with a filter that has a filtration screen made from a durable stainless steel alloy.

For many years, the industry-standard alloy of choice for filter screens has been 316L stainless steel. But due to the rising need for operational compliance, some of its shortcomings in seawater environments are coming to light. This has led some manufacturers to opt for the higher-grade 904L stainless steel when producing filtrations screens for seawater applications. Both these alloys can be applied in seawater filtration, but what are the differences between these two types of steel? And ultimately, as many shipowners are left to wonder, which is the right alloy for their BWMS, and their bottom line?

What is 316L Steel?

316L stainless steel is an austenitic alloy commonly known as “marine grade stainless steel” because it can be used for nearly 90% of marine applications – including filtration. In addition to metals like iron and nickel, 316L contains 16-18% chromium and 2-3% of molybdenum. These elements are important because they increase the alloy’s corrosion resistance; the chromium interacts with oxygen in the seawater to create a protective layer of chromium oxide, and molybdenum improves the metal’s ability to resist pitting corrosion. Additionally, 316L has lower levels of carbon (hence the “L” in its name), which gives it greater protection against corrosion.

What is 904L steel?

While 316L has long been the primary alloy ballast water filtration manufacturers use for their filter screens, it is not the only alloy available on the market. In fact, Filtersafe has been examining the value of 316L for many years now. As global leaders in the seawater filtration industry, our engineers sought to improve filtration standards by improving our materials. Our studies concluded that 316L stainless steel was not durable enough to meet our requirements – and so we opted instead to manufacture filter screens from 904L stainless steel In fact, Filtersafe – the global leader in seawater filtration – has been examining the value of 316L for many years now.

Like 316L, 904L stainless steel is a low-carbon austenitic stainless steel. However, its chemical composition includes greater numbers of chromium (19-23%) and molybdenum (4-5%), which gives the alloy greater corrosion resistance than 316L. Some people are familiar with 904L stainless steel as a metal commonly used to produce Rolex watches, which speaks to its high quality and durability. However, the same benefits that make it a must-use for Rolex also make it hugely beneficial for seawater applications.

316L vs. 904L: Durability

Seawater is highly unpredictable. It can have dramatic variances in temperature, chloride level, and the presence of microorganisms or debris. Therefore, a BWMS filter must be durable enough to withstand these changes.

Both 316L and 904L stainless steel contain chromium, which reacts with oxygen in the air to form a thin, protective layer of chromium oxide on the surface of the alloy. However, it is important to note that 904L contains more chromium than 316L. This means it is likely to provide greater protection over a longer period of time.

types of corrosion that afflict stainless steel in seawater applications

904L vs. 316L: Corrosion Resistance

Perhaps the most important feature of any alloy used in marine applications is its ability to handle constant exposure to corrosive substances. Seawater filters are prone to several different types of corrosion attacks, including from chloride, microbiologically induced corrosion, and crevice corrosion. The filter is particularly susceptible to these three corrosion types during the 1-3 week period between ballasting, when the filter is immersed in stagnant water, which can allow the development of a biofilm inside the filter and on the screen, and lead to corrosion. Therefore, a ship owner needs a filter with as much corrosion resistance as possible.

Shipowners and manufacturers can measure corrosion resistance by looking at an alloy’s PREN value. This formula looks at the amount of chromium (Cr), molybdenum (Mo), and nitrogen (N) in an alloy to determine just how well it will hold up against corrosion. In this case, 904L stainless steel is the clear victor over 316L; with an average PREN value of 36.7, it is much stronger than 316L (which only has a PREN of 26.1). Therefore, 904L is more likely to withstand the corrosive power of seawater.

904 vs. 316: Steel Hardness

To further understand the differences between 904L and 316L stainless steel, we must examine the hardness of both metals. The best way to do this is to look at the Rockwell Scale, which measures the indentation hardness of a material. Metals that score highly on the Rockwell scale are harder, which implies that they will be strong and withstand any bumps or bruises.

Both 904L and 316L stainless steel have a Rockwell hardness value below 95, which is typical for most stainless steel. This means that they will be able to withstand most forces, which is important for BWMS. However, it is far more important that seawater filter screens withstand the internal dangers like chloride and other corrosion attacks. 904L offers greater protection overall, which sets it above 316L.

904 vs. 316: Cost

904L stainless steel and 316L stainless steel are both readily available for purchase. Many industries and companies use 904L stainless steel, and the alloy has some brand recognition as it is famously used by watch manufacturers like Rolex and OMEGA. 316L stainless steel is commonly used for exhaust manifolds, heat exchangers, jet engine parts, and much more. As a result, BWMS manufacturers can introduce either alloy into their supply chains without suffering a delay in supply or a product bottleneck.

But which alloys offer the most “bang for your buck”?

If you look solely at the numbers, 316L may seem like the more attractive choice. Because of its widespread use across so many industries, this metal is both easy to purchase and available for a lower price. 904L tends to cost about 1.3 times more than 316L, which can make some manufacturers balk at the idea of producing all their filter screens from this material.

However, it is important to remember that filter screens made from 904L stainless steel will last longer and require fewer repairs than filters made from less durable materials. The enhanced corrosion resistance capabilities of 904L stainless steel make it less likely to wear down and break from corrosion, and therefore it will require fewer repairs over its lifespan. This is ideal for shipowners who do not want to incur additional costs to keep their ship in compliance with industry environmental and operating standards.

What is the Difference Between 316 and 904L Stainless Steel?

When ship owners are deciding between filters for their BWMS, they must consider a variety of factors before making their choice: cost, availability, value, etc. On the surface, the differences between 316L and 904L stainless steel may seem negligible, but in actuality, they have huge impacts on the long-term value of the filter.

To the Filtersafe team, the choice is clear: 904L stainless steel is the best choice for BWMS filters. 904L stainless steel offers greater durability, which makes it more effective and less costly over time (despite a higher initial cost). This alloy will help boost standards across the seawater filtration industry – and, in turn, improve environmental factors in oceans across the globe.

To learn more, download our white paper on Overcoming Corrosion of Stainless Steel in Seawater Applications for more extensive research on the common alloys used in seawater.

The Top Alloys For Use In Seawater Filtration Applications

a comparison of the top seawater worthy stainless steel alloys

Filtration of seawater is a necessity across a diverse range of industries – such as intake for a desalination plant, ballast filtration for an oil tanker, or to maintain pressure and the production rate. When running a complex operation there are plenty of unexpected expenses to deal with on a regular basis, and the last thing anyone wants is a preventable failure of their filtration equipment. This is especially pertinent when dealing with seawater because it is filled with corrosive elements that can lead to material failure like corrosion or strength degradation. Therefore it’s important to have a quality, durable filtration system.

desalination pipeAs part of the search for the best system, an often underappreciated but critical component to its success is dependent on which alloy the screen filter, the heart of the system, is made of. The filter screen is the physical barrier that prevents particles (organic and inorganic alike) that are larger that its pore size from passing through with the water. Corrosion to the screen can damage its ability to be cleaned, clog its open area and inhibit water flow, or degrade the screen’s structural integrity, letting particles larger than its pore size to get through and compromise the integrity of the system. Various seawater filtration industries struggle with the same decision as to which is the best

Seawater filters have unique and specific requirements: they need to be non-corrosive, as well as effective at removing debris of various sizes, which can harm down-stream processes. This is extra important in industries that rely on very fine filtration (100-5 microns), such as in desalination and ballast water filtration. In these cases, the screens must also be highly effective at removing phytoplankton and zooplankton from the water. Any seawater processing application requires a durable pre-filtration protection system so that time and money isn’t wasted over the years to repair poorly protected systems. With this in mind, let us look at the most common alloys used in seawater filtration and determine which alloy best suits your system.

316L

316L stainless steel, also known as “marine grade stainless steel,” is the second-most common stainless steel used in manufacturing today (after 304 stainless steel). This alloy is made up of iron, chromium (about 16%), nickel (10%) and molybdenum (2%), as well as trace amounts of quantities of silicon, phosphorus, and sulfur. Although it is a popular choice, the latest advice from the International Stainless Steel Forum is that AISI 316 and its derivatives “are no longer recommended for permanent contact with seawater.” We’ll see some of the reasons behind this decision in the Cons section.

Pros

316L stainless steel is a popular choice for seawater filtration. This is in part due to the alloy’s widespread use throughout many industries, making it widely available, as well as the benefits described below.

Some Corrosion-Resistance

Like all of the alloys discussed here, 316L stainless steel contains chromium. This element is an important part of the chemical makeup; it creates a thin film over the alloy when exposed to oxygen, which helps prevent the steel from becoming corroded over time.

The chromium in the alloy does provide a degree of protection that prolongs the steel’s – and by extension, the filtration system’s – lifespan. However, it is important to note that 316L does not provide complete protection from corrosion. While the alloy can offer reasonable protection in the short term, its particularly susceptible to pitting corrosion caused by inconsistent salinity levels in the seawater.

Tolerant to Higher Temperatures

Temperature fluctuations are most acutely felt in the shipping industry, as seawater can vary wildly in temperature between locations, seasons or even times of the day.  316L can tolerate water temperatures up to Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), which means it is able to successfully stand up to most seawater.

Low Cost

One of the biggest benefits of 316L stainless steel is its relatively low cost and wide availability. Manufacturers can purchase 316L scrap relatively inexpensively, which makes it a highly accessible material for filtration system engineering.

Cons

Despite 316L’s popularity, there are some industry experts who believe that this stainless-steel alloy is inappropriate for use specifically in ballast water treatment systems. These professionals cite issues with the welding process as a major drawback – and the consequences of these issues certainly warrant a second look in other seawater applications as well.

High Ferrite Content

One of the biggest drawbacks in using 316L stainless steel for seawater filtration can occur during the welding process. 316L must be welded under very strict conditions, or else it might develop a high ferrite content in the weld seam.  Ferrite can diminish an alloy’s ability to resist corrosion. Even a small amount (around 2%) of ferrite content in a weld seam can result in a less effective finished product.

Since 316L stainless steel is prone to developing excess ferrite during production, it can make some filtration experts leery of using this alloy in their systems. In fact, some argue that the potential for high ferrite content in 316L stainless steel can lead to greater incidence of pitting corrosion or crevice corrosion. This kind of damage can require significant repair or even a completely new filtration system – effectively counteracting the reduced costs of using the 316L alloy.

Duplex 2205

Duplex 2205 is a stainless steel characterized by its strength. With a makeup of 22% chromium, 3% molybdenum, and about 5% nickel, it is about on par with 904L in terms of corrosion resistance. However, duplex 2205 is (as the name suggests) a duplex stainless steel; this means that it contains both austenite and ferrite phases in its metallurgical structure, giving the alloy a greater overall durability.

Pros

Duplex 2205 is the most popular of the duplex stainless steels, and it is often used in pipework systems for offshore oil and gas. This alloy’s strength and chemical composition, as well as its durability against
seawater in offshore uses, makes it a logical choice on paper.

seawater filtration for oil and gas applications

Good Corrosion Resistance

Duplex 2205 has a PREN average of 35.9 – just shy of 904L stainless steels average of 36.7. This indicates that this alloy would be able to fair just as well as 904L when dealing with pitting corrosion, crevice corrosion, or any other type of destructive wear and tear within the filtration system. Theoretically, duplex 2205 would be a reasonable alloy for a seawater filter.

Cons

While duplex 2205 has had plenty of success within the oil and gas industry when used as a solid structure such as piping, it’s not used often in complex manufacturing procedures such as a weaved screen mesh used in seawater filtration. This is likely due to two main issues: There are challenges when working with it and its lower temperature threshold for corrosion.

Hard to Work With

One of Duplex 2205’s assets, it’s strength, is actually a double-edged sword. Since the alloy is so strong, it makes it difficult to work with, and requires special heavy machinery that is not commonplace. In addition, it makes it very challenging to mold the steel into the very tiny and delicate structures, such as ballast water filters or desalination filters that require filtration down to 10 microns.

Corrodes Faster than 904L

While Duplex 2205 has better corrosion resistance than 316L, it still corrodes at a lower temperature than 904L (50C vs 55C for 904L).

904L

Another popular alloy used in seawater filtration is 904L stainless steel. This alloy contains many of the same elements as 316L steel, but it is comprised of higher levels of chromium (about 19%), nickel (23%), and molybdenum (4%).

904L stainless steel is most famously used in luxury watches (Rolex, for example, swears by this alloy), but it is also a popular metal for seawater filtration. This is because the high amounts of nickel in this alloy
makes it particularly corrosion resistant, protecting your seawater filter from damage.

Pros

Choosing the right alloy is essential for a durable and effective seawater filtration system. When alloys have similar compositions, like 316L and 904L, the decision may seem insignificant; however, 904L stainless steel has some major benefits that can make a big difference for a seawater filter.

Highly Corrosion-Resistant

As we mentioned above, 904L is highly resistant to corrosion due to the high levels of nickel in its composition. This means that seawater filtration systems made with 904L tend to have a longer lifespan than their competitors.

In fact, 904L stainless steel has an average pitting resistance equivalent number (PREN) of 36.7 – more than 10 points higher than 316L’s PREN average (26.1). This is an important parameter to consider when
designing seawater filters, as it will help determine how effective the filter’s corrosion resistance and durability will be over its life.

Widespread Availability

Another benefit 904L has to its credit is its availability in the market. This alloy is readily available from most suppliers, which means that engineers and manufacturers can procure the metal and produce filtration systems much more easily than they might with other metals.

Cons

While 904L stainless steel offers both practical and logistical benefits, it is not a perfect alloy. Some engineers or manufacturers may opt for another metal due to the one major flaw that accompanies using this metal: the cost to use it.

Higher Cost

The costs of most alloys vary based on the amount of chromium and molybdenum in the metal. As we’ve mentioned previously, 904L stainless steel has higher levels of both these elements compared to 316L – which means that it tends to be about 1.3 times more expensive.

This price difference might drive some budget-conscious manufacturers to a lower-quality alloy. However, it is important to mention that the greater strength and durability of 904L stainless steel means that filters made from this alloy are less likely to need repairs during their lifespan. The cost savings you will earn from this lack of repairs more than offsets the cost of the alloy itself.

254 SMO

Like the two alloys we’ve already mentioned, 254 SMO is an austenitic stainless steel. However, this alloy was originally developed for use in chloride-heavy environments – such as seawater cooling pipes, heat exchangers, pulp and paper plants and more. The metal contains a similar amount of chromium as 904L, but it has a greater amount of molybdenum (6% vs. 4% in 904L).

With this composition in mind (not to mention the alloy’s intended use), it is no surprise that 254 SMO is an alloy that generates lots of interest among seawater filtration engineers. There are unquestionable benefits that come with using this alloy – but there are also a few drawbacks that can complicate its use.

Pros

The greatest benefit of using 254 SMO for seawater filtration is its corrosion resistance. The chemical composition of this alloy makes it highly resistant to both microbiologically induced corrosion and chemical corrosion – making it incredibly durable against seawater even after prolonged exposure.

Excellent Corrosion Resistance

254 SMO has a PREN average of 43.8, which means it has the greatest protection against corrosion of all the alloys studied here. It also has a low carbon content (around .02%), which means that there is little risk of ferrite development during production. These two facts mean that 254 SMO is one of the best alloys for protecting your seawater filtration system from the corrosive effects of seawater.

Cons

The excellent protective qualities of 254 SMO might make it seem like the gold standard in seawater filtration materials. However, at least in their ballast water treatment systems, few developers use it – why? 254 SMO is often passed over due to two flaws in its practicality.

High Cost

As we mentioned earlier, alloy costs vary depending on the amount of chromium and molybdenum in the steel. 254 SMO contains higher levels of these elements than both 316L and 904L stainless steel – which means that it tends to cost much more than its competitor alloys.

254 SMO can cost as much as three times more than 316L, and many manufacturers are unwilling to spend more to produce their filtration systems. This cost is above the threshold deemed “acceptable” by most industry professionals (unlike 904L stainless steel, which has a slightly higher cost but offsets the cost of maintenance).

Limited Availability

One of the hinderances that limits 254 SMO from being suggested for more seawater filters is that this alloy is not produced regularly due to its higher costs.

Which Alloy is Best?

radar diagrams for common stainless steel alloys

Due to the nature of seawater filtration and its association with heavy industry, engineers of all applications endeavor to build filtration systems standing up to the ravages of seawater — all without costing you too much money. At the same time, the cost of using a lower-quality alloy will corrode more easily and lead to expensive problems – specifically more frequent maintenance and reduced filtration capabilities as corrosion overtakes the screen. These outcomes will, in the long run, increase operating costs, as equipment owners will have to pay for more frequent servicing, and where applicable such as in regulated industries like ballast water management systems (BWMS), potential fines for non-compliance of malfunctioning systems.

The solution? Invest in a filtration system that’s made from a durable, yet cost-efficient material. And when it comes to choosing the best alloys for seawater filtration without consideration of cost – SMO 254 is definitely the favored alloy. When dealing with a high end application where even the smallest downtime can be very costly such as in the oil & gas or desalination sector, the initial investment in using a Filter with an SMO 254 screen pays off in the long run. However, when a cost-effective solution is required, there is one option that stands head and shoulders above the competition: 904L stainless steel.

904L stainless steel is the ideal marriage of strength, corrosion resistance, and accessibility – all at a reasonable cost to manufacturers. Seawater filters made from this alloy will stand up to corrosion and keep your filtration system running effectively for many years, saving you thousands in fees and maintenance costs.

For a deeper investigation into the alloys discussed above for use in seawater applications please download our peer-reviewed white paper on the topic – Overcoming Corrosion of Stainless Steel Screens in Seawater Applications.