Multiscale modeling of atomic transport phenomena in ferritic steels
Abstract: Defect-driven transport of impurities plays a key role in the microstructure evolution of alloys, and has a great impact on the mechanical properties at the macroscopic scale. This phenomenon is greatly enhanced in irradiated materials because of the large amount of radiation-induced crystal defects (vacancies and interstitials). For instance, the formation of nanosized solute clusters in neutron-irradiated reactor pressure vessel (RPV) ferritic steels has been shown to hinder dislocation motion and induce hardening and embrittlement. In Swedish RPV steels, this mechanical-property degradation is enhanced by the high content of manganese and nickel impurities. It has been suggested that the formation of Mn-Ni-rich clusters (which contain also Cu, Si, and P) might be the outcome of a dynamic process, where crystal defects act both as nucleation sites and solute carriers. Solute transport by point defects is therefore a crucial mechanism to understand the origin and the dynamics of the clustering process.The first part of this work aims at modeling solute transport by point defects in dilute iron alloys, to identify the intrinsic diffusion mechanisms for a wide range of impurities. Transport and diffusion coefficients are obtained by combining accurate ab initio calculations of defect transition rates with an exact mean-field model. The results show that solute drag by single vacancies is a common phenomenon occurring at RPV temperature (about 300 °C) for all impurities found in the solute clusters, and that transport of phosphorus and manganese atoms is dominated by interstitial-type defects. These transport tendencies confirm that point defects can indeed carry impurities towards nucleated solute clusters. Moreover, the obtained flux-coupling tendencies can also explain the observed radiation-induced solute enrichment on grain boundaries and dislocations.In the second part of this work, the acquired knowledge about solute-transport mechanisms is transferred to kinetic Monte Carlo (KMC) models, with the aim of simulating the RPV microstructure evolution. Firstly, the needed parameters in terms of solute-defect cluster stability and mobility are calculated by means of dedicated KMC simulations. Secondly, an innovative approach to the prediction of transition rates in complex multicomponent alloys is introduced. This approach relies on a neural network based on ab initio-computed migration barriers. Finally, the evolution of the Swedish RPV steels is simulated in a "gray-alloy" fashion, where impurities are introduced indirectly as a modification of the defect-cluster mobilities. The latter simulations are compared to the experimental characterization of the Swedish RPV surveillance samples, and confirm the possibility that solute clusters might form on small interstitial clusters.In conclusion, this work identifies from a solid theoretical perspective the atomic-transport phenomena underlying the formation of embrittling nanofeatures in RPV steels. In addition, it prepares the ground for the development of predictive KMC tools that can simulate the microstructure evolution of a wide variety of irradiated alloys. This is of great interest not only for reactor pressure vessels, but also for many other materials in extreme environments.
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