Fresh iron surfaces appear lustrous silvery-gray, but oxidize in normal air to give hydrated iron oxides, commonly known as rust.
Unlike the metals that form passivating oxide layers, iron oxides occupy more volume than the metal and thus flake off, exposing fresh surfaces for corrosion.
Iron metal has been used since ancient times, although copper alloys, which have lower melting temperatures, were used even earlier in human history.
Pure iron is relatively soft, but is unobtainable by smelting because it is significantly hardened and strengthened by impurities, in particular carbon, from the smelting process.
Further refinement with oxygen reduces the carbon content to the correct proportion to make steel.
Steels and iron alloys formed with other metals (alloy steels) are by far the most common industrial metals because they have a great range of desirable properties and iron-bearing rock is abundant. Iron oxide mixed with aluminium powder can be ignited to create a thermite reaction, used in welding and purifying ores.
It is by mass the most common element on Earth, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core.
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