Study shows what happens when crystalline grains in metals reform at nanometer scales, improving metal properties.
Forming metal into the shapes needed for various purposes can be done in many ways, including casting, machining, rolling, and forging. These processes affect the sizes and shapes of the tiny crystalline grains that make up the bulk metal, whether it be steel, aluminium or other widely used metals and alloys.
Now researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been able to study exactly what happens as these crystal grains form during an extreme deformation process, at the tiniest scales, down to a few nanometers across. The new findings could lead to improved ways of processing to produce better, more consistent properties such as hardness and toughness.
The new findings, made possible by detailed analysis of images from a suite of powerful imaging systems, are reported today in the journal Nature Materials, in a paper by former MIT postdoc Ahmed Tiamiyu (now assistant professor at the University of Calgary); MIT professors Christopher Schuh, Keith Nelson, and James LeBeau; former student Edward Pang; and current student Xi Chen.
For the first time, researchers have described how the tiny crystalline grains that make up most solid metals actually form. Understanding this process, they say, could theoretically lead to ways of producing stronger, lighter versions of widely used metals such as aluminium, steel and titanium.
Credits: Image: Courtesy of the researchers
“In the process of making a metal, you are endowing it with a certain structure, and that structure will dictate its properties in service. In general, the smaller the grain size, the stronger the resulting metal. Striving to improve strength and toughness by making the grain sizes smaller “has been an overarching theme in all of metallurgy, in all metals, for the past 80 years,” said Schuh.
Metallurgists have long applied a variety of empirically developed methods for reducing the sizes of the grains in a piece of solid metal, generally by imparting various kinds of strain through deforming it in one way or another. But it’s not easy to make these grains smaller.
The primary method is called recrystallisation, in which the metal is deformed and heated. This creates many small defects throughout the piece, which are “highly disordered and all over the place,” says Schuh, who is the Danae and Vasilis Salapatas Professor of Metallurgy.
When the metal is deformed and heated, then all those defects can spontaneously form the nuclei of new crystals. “You go from this messy soup of defects to freshly new nucleated crystals. And because they’re freshly nucleated, they start very small,” leading to a structure with much smaller grains, Schuh explains.
What’s unique about the new work, he says, is determining how this process takes place at very high-speed and the smallest scales. Whereas typical metal-forming processes like forging or sheet rolling, may be quite fast, this new analysis looks at processes that are “several orders of magnitude faster,” Schuh says.
“We use a laser to launch metal particles at supersonic speeds. To say it happens in the blink of an eye would be an incredible understatement, because you could do thousands of these in the blink of an eye,” says Schuh.
Such a high-speed process is not just a laboratory curiosity, he says. “There are industrial processes where things do happen at that speed.” These include high-speed machining, high-energy milling of metal powder and a method called cold spray, for forming coatings. In their experiments, “we’ve tried to understand that recrystallisation process under those very extreme rates, and because the rates are so high, no one has really been able to dig in there and look systematically at that process before,” he says.
Using a laser-based system to shoot 10-micrometer particles at a surface, Tiamiyu, who carried out the experiments, “could shoot these particles one at a time, and really measure how fast they are going and how hard they hit,” Schuh says. Shooting the particles at ever-faster speeds, he would then cut them open to see how the grain structure evolved, down to the nanometer scale, using a variety of sophisticated microscopy techniques at the MIT.nano facility, in collaboration with microscopy specialists.
The result was the discovery of what Schuh says is a “novel pathway” by which grains were forming down to the nanometer scale.