An alloy is a mixture of two or more materials, at least one of which is a metal. Alloys can have a microstructure consisting of solid solutions, where secondary atoms are introduced as substitutionals or interstitials in a crystal lattice. An alloy may also be a mixture of metallic phases (two or more solutions, forming a microstructure of different crystals within the metal).
But all alloys can exist in different phases. Phases are physically homogeneous states of an alloy. A phase has a precise chemical composition – a certain arrangement and bonding between the atoms. This structure of atoms imparts different properties to different phases. Phase diagrams are graphical representations of the phases present in an alloy at different conditions of temperature, pressure, or chemical composition.
Phase Diagram of Iron-carbon System
The simplest ferrous alloys are known as steels and they consist of iron (Fe) alloyed with carbon (C) (about 0.1% to 1%, depending on type). Adding a small amount of non-metallic carbon to iron trades its great ductility for the greater strength. Due to its very-high strength, but still substantial toughness, and its ability to be greatly altered by heat treatment, steel is one of the most useful and common ferrous alloy in modern use. In the figure, there is the iron–iron carbide (Fe–Fe3C) phase diagram. The percentage of carbon present and the temperature define the phase of the iron carbon alloy and therefore its physical characteristics and mechanical properties. The percentage of carbon determines the type of the ferrous alloy: iron, steel or cast iron.
Common Phases in Steels and Irons
Heat treatment of steels requires an understanding of both the equilibrium phases and the metastable phases that occur during heating and/or cooling. For steels, the stable equilibrium phases include:
- Ferrite. Ferrite or α-ferrite is a body-centered cubic structure phase of iron which exists below temperatures of 912°C for low concentrations of carbon in iron. α-ferrite can only dissolve up to 0.02 percent of carbon at 727°C. This is because of the configuration of the iron lattice which forms a BCC crystal structure. The primary phase of low-carbon or mild steel and most cast irons at room temperature is ferromagnetic α-Fe.
- Austenite. Austenite, also known as gamma-phase iron (γ-Fe), is a non-magnetic face-centered cubic structure phase of iron. Austenite in iron-carbon alloys is generally only present above the critical eutectoid temperature (723°C), and below 1500°C, depending on carbon content. However, it can be retained to room temperature by alloy additions such as nickel or manganese. Carbon plays an important role in heat treatment, because it expands the temperature range of austenite stability. Higher carbon content lowers the temperature needed to austenitize steel—such that iron atoms rearrange themselves to form an fcc lattice structure. Austenite is present in the most commonly used type of stainless steel, which are very well known for their corrosion resistance.
- Graphite. Adding a small amount of non-metallic carbon to iron trades its great ductility for the greater strength.
- Cementite. Cementite (Fe3C) is a metastable compound, and under some circumstances it can be made to dissociate or decompose to form α-ferrite and graphite, according to the reaction: Fe3C → 3Fe (α) + C (graphite). Cementite in its pure form is a ceramic and it is hard and brittle which makes it suitable for strengthening steels. Its mechanical properties are a function of its microstructure, which depends upon how it is mixed with ferrite.
The metastable phases are:
- Pearlite. In metallurgy, pearlite is a layered metallic structure of two-phases, which compose of alternating layers of ferrite (87.5 wt%) and cementite (12.5 wt%) that occurs in some steels and cast irons. It is named for its resemblance to mother of pearl.
- Martensite. Martensite is a very hard metastable structure with a body-centered tetragonal (BCT) crystal structure. Martensite is formed in steels when the cooling rate from austenite is at such a high rate that carbon atoms do not have time to diffuse out of the crystal structure in large enough quantities to form cementite (Fe3C).
- Bainite. Bainite is a plate-like microstructure that forms in steels from austenite when cooling rates are not rapid
enough to produce martensite but are still fast enough so that carbon does not have enough time to diffuse to form pearlite. Bainitic steels are generally stronger and harder than pearlitic steels; yet they exhibit a desirable combination of strength and ductility.
Critical Temperature of Steel
Critical temperature of steel defines phase transition between two phases of steel. As the steel is heated above the critical temperature, about 1335°F (724°C), it undergoes a phase change, recrystallizing as austenite. There are two types of critical temperature:
- Lower critical temperature (Ac1). The temperature at which austenite starts to transform from ferrite.
- Upper critical temperature (Ac3). The temperature at which austenite is completely transformed from ferrite.
In the Fe-C system, there is a eutectoid point at approximately 0.8wt% C, 723°C. The phase just above the eutectoid temperature for plain carbon steels is known as austenite or gamma.