Phase Separation in Stainless Steels Studied by Small-angle Neutron Scattering

Abstract: Fe-Cr based steels, i.e. stainless steels, possessing a combination of excellent corrosion resistance and good mechanical properties, have indispensable applications ranging from low-end cooking utensils, to sophisticated components for nuclear power plants. However, the bcc/bct phase containing stainless steels which have a miscibility gap (MG) suffer from the so-called “475 oC embrittlement” leading to hardness increase and toughness deterioration. It occurs due to demixing of Fe and Cr leading to the formation of Fe-rich (α) and Cr-rich (α′) regions in bcc/bct phases. The demixing is referred to as phase separation (PS).The goal of this work was to study PS in ferrite containing stainless steels mainly by small-angle neutron scattering (SANS). Firstly, the application of different experimental techniques for the study of phase separation in Fe-Cr based steels was reviewed and supplemented by new measurements. SANS was shown to be very sensitive to the nanostructure change caused by PS and capable of characterizing the early stages of PS in Fe-Cr alloys. However, atom probe tomography and transmission electron microscopy are complementary to SANS. Therefore, in order to have a more complete view of the microstructure, the combination of these techniques should be pursued. Secondly, the factors affecting the initial microstructure prior to aging treatment and the effect of the resulted initial microstructure on PS were systematically investigated using binary Fe-Cr model alloys. The critical temperature of the MG was determined to be located between 560 and 580 oC in binary Fe-Cr. The results indicate that the solution treatment temperature above the MG and the cooling rate after solution treatment have significant effects on the initial microstructure and thus on PS during subsequent aging. The mechanisms responsible for the changed aging behavior are Cr clustering, quenched-in vacancy and decomposition during cooling. Therefore, computational simulations should take into account these factors and the initial microstructure to make predictions that are more accurate. Thirdly, the study was extended to PS in commercial duplex stainless steels (DSSs) which are of practical importance in various industries, e.g., nuclear power. It is found that alloying elements have an important effect on PS in DSSs. The grade 2507 (25 %Cr, 7 %Ni) experiences stronger PS than grade 2205 (22 %Cr, 5 % Ni) for the same heat treatment. Moreover, the fracture mechanisms as well as the mechanical properties depend on the extent of PS.  Finally, the fundamental aspects regarding the neutron scattering behavior for Fe-Cr alloys were examined. The results show that the nuclear and magnetic scattering of neutrons depend on the evolution of the nanoscale compositional fluctuation in Fe-Cr alloys. The ratio of the magnitude of nuclear scattering versus magnetic scattering varies with the extent of PS.