Precipitation Hardening – Age Hardening

Hardening of Metals

In materials science, hardness is the ability to withstand surface indentation (localized plastic deformation) and scratching. Hardness is probably the most poorly defined material property because it may indicate resistance to scratching, resistance to abrasion, resistance to indentation or even resistance to shaping or localized plastic deformation. Hardness is important from an engineering standpoint because resistance to wear by either friction or erosion by steam, oil, and water generally increases with hardness.

Hardening is a metallurgical metalworking process used to increase the hardness of a metal. The hardness of a metal is directly proportional to the uniaxial yield stress at the location of the imposed strain. To improve the hardness of a pure metal, we can use different ways, which include:

Precipitation Hardening – Age Hardening

Precipitation hardeningPrecipitation hardening, also called age hardening or particle hardening, is a heat treatment technique based on the formation of extremely small, uniformly dispersed particles (precipitates) of a second phase within the original phase matrix to enhance the strength and hardness of some metal alloys. Second phase particles present further type of obstacles for dislocation movement, though the particles are not necessarily single atoms. The presence of a second phase particle represents a distortion in the matrix lattice. Therefore, the obstacles which hinder the dislocation motion are either the strain field around second phase particles or the second phase particles itself or both. 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.

Nickel-base superalloys include solid-solution-strengthened alloys and age-hardenable alloys. Age-hardenable alloys consist of an austenitic (fcc) matrix dispersed with coherent precipitation of an Ni3(Al,Ti) intermetallic with an fcc structure. Ni-based superalloys are alloys with nickel as the primary alloying element are preferred as blade material in the previously discussed applications, rather than Co- or Fe-based superalloys. What is significant for Ni-based superalloys is their high strength, creep and corrosion resistance at high temperatures. It is common to cast turbine blades in directionally solidified form or single-crystal form.

In case of aluminium alloys, precipitation strengthening can increase the yield strength of aluminium from about five times up to about fifteen times that of unalloyed aluminium. Especially 2xxx series, which are alloyed with copper, can be precipitation hardened to strengths comparable to steel. In terms of age hardening, solution annealed aluminum-copper alloys can be aged naturally at room temperature for four days or more to obtain maximum properties such as hardness and strength. This process is known as natural aging. The aging process also can be accelerated to a matter of hours after solution treatment and quenching by heating the supersaturated alloy to a specific temperature and holding at that temperature for a specified time. This process is called artificial aging. Typically, aluminum 6061 alloy is heat treated at 533°C (990°F) for a sufficient period of time followed by quenching in water. Precipitation hardening process can be performed at 160°C (320°F) for 18 h followed by air cooling. This process is again repeated at 177°C (350°F) for 8 h followed by cooling in air.

In case of copper beryllium, the high strength of this alloy is attained also by precipitation hardening. The precipitation hardening results from the precipitation of a beryllium containing phase from a supersaturated solid solution of mostly pure copper. Copper beryllium is the hardest and strongest of any copper alloy (UTS up to 1,400 MPa), in the fully heat treated and cold worked condition. It combines high strength with non-magnetic and non-sparking qualities and it is similar in mechanical properties to many high strength alloy steels but, compared to steels, it has better corrosion resistance.

17-4PH Stainless Steel

For example, precipitation-hardened stainless steel 17-4 PH (AISI 630) have an initial microstructure of austenite or martensite. Austenitic grades are converted to martensitic grades through heat treatment (e.g. throung heat treatment at about 1040 °C followed by quenching) before precipitation hardening can be done. Subsequent ageing treatment at about 475 °C precipitates Nb and Cu-rich phases that increase the strength up to above 1000 MPa yield strength. In all heat treatments performed the predominant microstructure is lath martensite. Unlike austenitic alloys, however, heat treatment strengthens PH steels to levels higher than martensitic alloys. Precipitation-hardening stainless steels are designated by the AISI 600-series. Of all of the available stainless grades, they generally offer the greatest combination of high strength coupled with excellent toughness and corrosion resistance.  They are as corrosion resistant as austenitic grades. Common uses are in the aerospace and some other high-technology industries.

Example – Aluminium Alloys – 6061 Alloy

aluminium alloyIn general, 6000 series aluminium alloys are alloyed with magnesium and silicon. Alloy 6061 is one of the most widely used alloys in the 6000 Series. It has good mechanical properties, it is easy to machine, it is weldable, and can be precipitation hardened, but not to the high strengths that 2000 and 7000 can reach. It has very good corrosion resistance and very good weldability although reduced strength in the weld zone. The mechanical properties of 6061 depend greatly on the temper, or heat treatment, of the material. In comparison to 2024 alloy, 6061 is more easily worked and remains resistant to corrosion even when the surface is abraded.

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