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Heat treatment

The purpose of heat treating steel is to change the mechanical properties of steel, usually ductility, hardness, yield strength, or impact resistance. Note that the electrical and thermal conductivity are slightly altered. As with most strengthening techniques for steel, Young's modulus is unaffected. Steel has a higher solid solubility for carbon in the austenite phase; therefore all heat treatments, except spheroidizing and process annealing, start by heating to an austenitic phase. The rate at which the steel is cooled through the eutectoid reaction affects the rate at which carbon diffuses out of austenite. Here is a list of the types of heat treatments possible:

Spheroidizing: Spheroidite forms when carbon steel is heated to approximately 700 C for over 30 hours. Spheroidite can form at lower temperatures but the time needed drastically increases, as this is a diffusion-controlled process. The result is a structure of rods or spheres of cementite within primary structure (ferrite or pearlite, depending on which side of the eutectoid you are on). The purpose is to soften higher carbon steels and allow more formability. This is the softest and most ductile form of steel.

Full annealing: Carbon steel is heated in such a way that all the ferrite transforms into austenite (although cementite might still exist if the carbon content is greater than the eutectoid). The steel must then be cooled slowly, in the realm of 38 C (100 F) per hour. Usually it is just furnace cooled, where the furnace is turned off with the steel still inside. This result in a coarse pearlitic structure, which means the "bands" of pearlite are thick. Fully-annealed steel is soft and ductile, with no internal stresses, which is often necessary for cost-effective forming. Only spheroidized steel is softer and more ductile.

Process annealing: A process used to relieve stress in cold-worked carbon steel with less than 0.3 wt% Carbon. The steel is usually heated up to 550-650 C for 1 hour, but sometimes temperatures as high as 700 C. The image rightward shows the area where process annealing occurs.

Isothermal annealing: It is a process in which hypoeutectoid steel is heated above the upper critical temperature and this temperature is maintained for a time and then the temperature is brought down below lower critical temperature and is again maintained. Then finally it is cooled at room temperature. This method rids any temperature gradient.

Normalizing: Carbon steel is heated in such a way that the steel completely transforms to austenite. The steel is then air-cooled, which is a cooling rate of approximately 38 C (68 F) per minute. This results in a fine pearlitic structure, and a more-uniform structure. Normalized steel has a higher strength than annealed steel; it has a relatively high strength and ductility.

Quenching: Carbon steel with at least 0.4 wt% Carbon is heated to normalizing temperatures and then rapidly cooled (quenched) in water, brine, or oil to the critical temperature. The critical temperature is dependent on the carbon content, but as a general rule is lower as the carbon content increases. This result in a martensitic structure, a form of steel that possesses super-saturated carbon content in a deformed body-centered cubic (BCC) crystalline structure, properly termed body-centered tetragonal (BCT), with much internal stress. Thus quenched steel is extremely hard but brittle, usually too brittle for practical purposes. These internal stresses cause stress cracks on the surface. Quenched steel is approximately three to four (with more carbon) fold harder than normalized steel.

Martempering (Marquenching): Martempering is not actually a tempering procedure, hence the term "marquenching". It is a form of isothermal heat treatment applied after an initial quench of typically in a molten salt bath at a temperature right above the "martensite start temperature". At this temperature, residual stresses within the material are relieved and some bainite may be formed from the retained austenite which did not have time to transform into anything else. In industry, this is a process used to control the ductility and hardness of a material. With longer marquenching, the ductility increases with a minimal loss in strength; the steel is held in this solution until the inner and outer temperatures equalize. Then the steel is cooled at a moderate speed to keep the temperature gradient minimal. Not only does this process reduce internal stresses and stress cracks, but it also increases the impact resistance.

Quench and tempering: This is the most common heat treatment encountered, because the final properties can be precisely determined by the temperature and time of the tempering. Tempering involves reheating quenched steel to a temperature below the eutectoid temperature then cooling. The elevated temperature allows very small amounts of Spheroidite to form, which restores ductility, but reduces hardness. Actual temperatures and times are carefully chosen for each composition.

Austempering: The Austempering process is the same as Martempering, except the steel is held in the molten salt bath through the bainite transformation temperatures, and then moderately cooled. The resulting bainite steel has a greater ductility, higher impact resistance, and less distortion. The disadvantage of Austempering is it can only be used on a few steels, and it requires a special salt bath

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