Metals can be heat treated to alter the properties of strength, ductility, toughness, hardness or resistance to corrosion. There is a number of phenomena that occur in metals and alloys at elevated temperatures. For example, recrystallization and the decomposition of austenite. These are effective in altering the mechanical characteristics when appropriate heat treatments or thermal processes are used. In fact, the use of heat treatments on commercial alloys is an exceedingly common practice. Common heat treatment processes include annealing, precipitation hardening, quenching, and tempering.
The term quenching refers to a heat treatment in which a material is rapidly cooled in water, oil or air to obtain certain material properties, especially hardness. In ferrous alloys, quenching is most commonly used to harden steel by introducing martensite, while non-ferrous alloys will usually become softer than normal. Above this critical temperature, a metal is partially or fully austenitized, the cooling rate of the steel has to be rapid so as to let the austenite transform into metastable bainite or martensite.
The selection of a quenchant medium depends on the hardenability of the particular alloy, the section thickness and shape involved, and the cooling rates needed to achieve the desired micro-structure.
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). Therefore, it is a product of diffusionless transformation. Any diffusion whatsoever results in the formation of ferrite and cementite phases. It is named after the German metallurgist Adolf Martens (1850–1914).
The microstructure of martensite in steels has different morphologies and may appear as either lath martensite or plate martensite. For steel 0–0.6% carbon the martensite has the appearance of lath, and is called lath martensite. For steel greater than 1% carbon it will form a plate like structure called plate martensite. Plate martensite, as the name indicates, forms as lenticular (lens-shaped) crystals with a zigzag pattern of smaller plates. Between those two percentages, the physical appearance of the grains is a mix of the two. The strength of the martensite is reduced as the amount of retained austenite grows.
Transformation hardening, known also as martensitic transformation hardening, is one of most common methods of hardening, which is primarily used for steels (i.e. carbon steels as well as stainless steels). The martensitic transformation is not, however, unique to iron–carbon alloys. It is found in other systems and is characterized, in part, by the diffusionless transformation.
Martensitic steels use predominantly higher levels of C and Mn along with heat treatment to increase strength. The finished product will have a duplex micro-structure of ferrite with varying levels of degenerate martensite. This allows for varying levels of strength. In metallurgy, quenching is most commonly used to harden steel by introducing martensite. There is a balance between hardness and toughness in any steel; the harder the steel, the less tough or impact-resistant it is, and the more impact-resistant it is, the less hard it is.
Martensite is produced from austenite as a result of the quenching, or another form of rapid cooling. Austenite in iron-carbon alloys is generally only present above the critical eutectoid temperature (723°C), and below 1500°C, depending on carbon content. In case of normal cooling rates, as the austenite cools, the carbon diffuses out of the austenite and forms carbon rich iron-carbide (cementite) and leaves behind carbon poor ferrite. Depending on alloy composition, a layering of ferrite and cementite, called pearlite, may form. But in case of rapid cooling, the carbon does not have time enough to diffuse and the transforms to a highly strained body-centered tetragonal form called martensite that is supersaturated with carbon. All the carbon atoms remain as interstitial impurities in martensite. The cooling rate determines the relative proportions of martensite, ferrite, and cementite, and therefore determines the mechanical properties of the resulting steel, such as hardness, tensile strength and toughness as well.
Surface Hardening based on Quenching
Case hardening or surface hardening is the process in which hardness the surface (case) of an object is enhanced, while the inner core of the object remains elastic and tough. Case hardening by surface treatment can be classified further as diffusion treatments or localized heating treatments. Localized heating methods for case hardening include:
- Flame hardening. Flame hardening is a surface hardening technique which uses a single torch with a specially designed head to provide a very rapid means of heating the metal, which is then cooled rapidly, generally using water. This creates a “case” of martensite on the surface, while the inner core of the object remains elastic and tough. It is similar technique as induction hardening. A carbon content of 0.3–0.6 wt% C is needed for this type of hardening.
- Induction hardening. Induction hardening is a surface hardening technique which uses induction coils to provide a very rapid means of heating the metal, which is then cooled rapidly, generally using water. This creates a “case” of martensite on the surface. A carbon content of 0.3–0.6 wt% C is needed for this type of hardening.
- Laser hardening. Laser hardening is a surface hardening technique which uses a laser beam to provide a very rapid means of heating the metal, which is then cooled rapidly (generally by self-quenching). This creates a “case” of martensite on the surface, while the inner core of the object remains elastic and tough.
- Annealing. The term annealing refers to a heat treatment in which a material is exposed to an elevated temperature for an extended time period and then slowly cooled. In this process, metal gets rid of stresses and makes the grain structure large and soft-edged so that when the metal is hit or stressed it dents or perhaps bends, rather than breaking; it is also easier to sand, grind, or cut annealed metal.
- Quenching. The term quenching refers to a heat treatment in which a material is rapidly cooled in water, oil or air to obtain certain material properties, especially hardness. In metallurgy, quenching is most commonly used to harden steel by introducing martensite. There is a balance between hardness and toughness in any steel; the harder the steel, the less tough or impact-resistant it is, and the more impact-resistant it is, the less hard it is.
- Tempering. The term tempering refers to a heat treatment which is used to increase the toughness of iron-based alloys. Tempering is usually performed after hardening, to reduce some of the excess hardness, and is done by heating the metal to some temperature below the critical point for a certain period of time, then allowing it to cool in still air. Tempering makes the metal less hard while making it better able to sustain impacts without breaking. Tempering will cause the dissolved alloying elements to precipitate, or in the case of quenched steels, improve impact strength and ductile properties.
- Aging. Age hardening, also called precipitation hardening or particle hardening, is a heat treatment technique based on the formation of extremely small, uniformly dispersed particles of a second phase within the original phase matrix to enhance The strength and hardness of some metal alloys. Precipitation hardening is used to increase the yield strength of malleable materials, including most structural alloys of aluminium, magnesium, nickel, titanium, and some steels and stainless steels. In superalloys, it is known to cause yield strength anomaly providing excellent high-temperature strength.