Atom probe tomography on Steels

Why conducting atom probe tomography on steels?

Conducting atomic scale chemical and structural analysis on steels is particularly exciting and also important for revealing basic structure-property relationships that are governed by the interplay between structural defects and their specific chemical decoration.  These effects have been considered since long, such as the famous Cottrell cloud, the Portevin-Chatellier mechanism or the Suzuki effect, yet, it has been up to now very difficult or even impossible to directly observe such mechanisms.  The use of atom probe tomography in conjunction with structure-resolving electron microscopy and atom probe crystallography allows us nowadays to reveal both, the mechanical and the structural features of such phenomena.  Better understanding the interplay of local chemical composition and the thermodynamics and kinetics of lattice defects puts us in a position for deriving composition-sensitive microscopic and mean-field structure-property-processing relationships even for complex metallurgical alloys.  Steel is a particularly interesting material to conduct such studies owing to its multiple interstitial and substitutional alloying elements, its complex lattice defect substructure and the various equilibrium and non-equilibrium phase transformations that occur in them.


Martensite - to - austenite reversion through partitioning, segregation and kinetic freezing: a ductile 2 GPa Fe–Cr–C steel

In this project we studied carbon partitioning, retained austenite, austenite stabilization, martensite-to-austenite reversion, carbide formation and kinetic freezing of carbon during heat treatment of a martensitic stainless steel Fe–13.6Cr–0.44C (wt.%).  Austenite formation in carbon-enriched martensite–
austenite interface areas was confirmed by XRD, EBSD, TEM and APT. Both the formation of retained austenite and austenite reversion during low-temperature partitioning is discussed. The enrichment of carbon at martensite–martensite grain boundaries and martensite-retained austenite phase boundaries provides the driving force for austenite reversion. The reverted austenite zones have nanoscopic size (15–20 nm). The driving forces for austenite reversion are determined by local and not by global chemical equilibrium. Martensite-to-austenite reversion proceeds fast. This applies to both the formation of reversed austenite at retained austenite layers and austenite reversion among martensite laths. The volume fraction of austenite has nearly doubled after 2 min at 400°C. The carbides formed during tempering have M3C structure. With increasing tempering time the dispersion of the carbides decreases due to the Gibbs– Thomson effect.
During tempering between 300°C and 500°C carbon redistributes in three different ways. During quenching, in the vicinity of martensite–austenite interfaces, carbon segregates from the supersaturated martensite to both the hetero-interfaces and homophase grain boundaries. During tempering, carbon continuously partitions to martensite–austenite interfaces, driving the carbon-enriched areas towards austenite reversion (irrespective of whether the nucleation zones were initially retained or reversed austenite). Carbon inside martensite, far away from any interfaces, tends to form M3C carbides. This means that carbon segregates to martensite grain boundaries, to martensite–austenite interfaces, and forms carbides. We differentiate between three different types of austenite, namely, first, as-quenched retained austenite with nominal carbon content and low stability; second, retained austenite with increased carbon content and higher stability due to partitioning according to the local chemical potential of carbon; and third, reverted austenite.
The nanoscale structural changes lead to drastic improvements in the mechanical properties. A sample after 1 min tempering at 400°C has 2 GPa tensile strength with 14% total elongation. The strength increase is attributed to the high carbon content of the martensite and the interaction between dislocations and nano-sized carbides. The TRIP effect of the austenite during deformation, including the reverted nanoscale austenite, contributes to a strain-hardening capacity and, hence, promotes the ductility. Also, the topology of the reverted austenite is important: we suggest that the nanoscaled seam topology of the austenite surrounding the martensite acts as a soft barrier which has compliance and repair function. This might immobilize defects and prevent cracks from growth and inter-grain percolation. We attribute the fast nanoscale austenite reversion to an effect that we refer to as kinetic freezing of carbon. This means that the carbon is fast inside the martensite when leaving it but slow (and hence frozen) when entering the austenite. This means that carbon becomes trapped and highly enriched at the martensite–austenite interfaces owing to its low mobility within the austenite during low-temperature partitioning. This provides a much higher local driving force for austenite reversion. This means that the formation of nanoscaled reverted austenite depends mainly on the local but not on the global chemical potential of carbon at internal interfaces.

Martensite - to - austenite reversion through partitioning, segregation and kinetic freezing: a ductile 2 GPa Fe–Cr–C steel
Acta Materialia 60 (2012) 2790-2804
Acta Materialia 60 (2012) 2790–2804 Aust[...]
PDF-Dokument [1.8 MB]

Do ordered kappa carbides occur also in ferritic low-density Fe–Mn–Al–C steels?

In this project we found direct atomic-scale evidence for the precipitation of non-stoichiometric kappa-carbides, (Fe,Mn)3(Fe,Al)Cx containing Al, in a ferritic-matrix-based high-Al weight reduced steel isothermally annealed at either 500 or 600°C. With increasing isothermal holding temperature: (i) the kinetics for gamma decomposition increases; (ii) the width of kappa-phase increases; (iii) the Mn content inside the kappa-carbide decreases; and (iv) the enrichment factors for solutes decrease. We observed that fine lamellae consisting of a2 and gamma-phase are formed by a eutectoid decomposition of the gamma phase, where the kinetics is controlled by the undercooling. Using TEM and APT, we also elucidated the solute partitioning at the atomic-scale and thus obtained insights into the transformation mechanism of the kappa-phase in the ferritic steel  matrix. Al atoms partitioned into the austenite at high temperatures as well as the diffusion of C are significant factors for needle-like formation of kappa-carbides. 

Kappa carbides observed in a ferrite-based low-density Fe–Mn–Al–C alloy by transmission electron microscopy and atom probe tomography
Scripta Materialia 68 (2013) 348
Atom Probe Tomography weight reduced kap[...]
PDF-Dokument [1.0 MB]

What are suited parameters for conducting Laser assisted atom probe studies on maraging TRIP steels?

In this propject a precipitation hardened maraging TRIP steel was analyzed using a pulsed laser atom probe. The laser pulse energy was varied from 0.3 to 1.9 nJ to study its effect on the measured chemical compositions and spatial resolution. The compositions of the nano-precipitates were not affected by
changes in the laser pulse energy, whereas the evaporation field
and charge state ratios showed a strong dependence on the laser
pulse energy.

Atom Probe Tomography APT Maraging Steel Laser Pulsed APT Atom Probe Tomography APT Maraging Steel Laser Pulsed APT
Pulsed-laser atom probe studies of a precipitation hardened maraging TRIP steel
Ultramicroscopy 111 (2011) 623
Atom probe tomography Ultramicroscopy TR[...]
PDF-Dokument [930.5 KB]

Methodological aspects for atom probe tomography characterization of heavily cold drawn pearlitic steel wire

In this project we studied methodological aspects of the atom probe tomography characterization of heavily cold drawn pearlitic steel wire. Pearlitic wires exhibit tensile strengths up to 7 GPa after severe plastic deformation. Such heavy wire deformation promotes refinement of the ferrite-cementite lamellar structure and gradual cementite decomposition. In our work, a Local Electrode Atom Probe 3000 (LEAP) was used to characterize the microstructural evolution of pearlitic steel.

Methodological aspects for atom probe tomography characterization of heavily cold drawn pearlitic steel wire Methodological aspects for atom probe tomography characterization of heavily cold drawn pearlitic steel wire

Influence of Si on the acceleration of the bainite transformation by preexisting martensite

In this project the Bainite transformation, which is one of the competing reactions that take place during the partitioning step in the Q&P process, was investigated focusing on the effect of pre-existing martensite on bainite transformation kinetics and crystallographic orientation, especially in steel with high Si content (2 wt%) compared with a Si-free steel. Bainite transformation was clearly accelerated by the pre-existing martensite in both Si-containing and Si-free steels. Bainite surrounds the pre-existing martensite in the Si-free steel,
whereas it grows to the interior of the austenite grains in the 2 wt% Si steel. The major orientation relationship between bainite and adjacent austenite was changed by the presence of martensite from N-Wto G-T regardless of Si addition. Clear carbon partitioning from martensite to austenite was observed prior to bainite transformation in 2 wt% Si steel, which was not observed in Si-free steel. The results obtained in this study suggest that the dislocations introduced by martensite transformation are profoundly contributing to the bainite acceleration phenomenon caused by the preexisting martensite.

Influence of Si on the acceleration of the bainite transformation by preexisting martensite Influence of Si on the acceleration of the bainite transformation by preexisting martensite
Influence of the Si content on the bainite transformation under the presence of pre-existing martensite in steels
Acta Materialia 116 (2016) 250
Effect of Si on bainite transformation a[...]
PDF-Dokument [2.5 MB]


Acta Mat. 2011, 59, p. 364