Heat treatment

Metals can be heat treated to alter the properties of strength, ductility, toughness, hardness or resistance to corrosion. Common heat treatment processes include annealing, precipitation strengthening, quenching, and tempering. The annealing process softens the metal by allowing recovery of cold work and grain growth. Quenching can be used to harden alloy steels, or in precipitation hardenable alloys, to trap dissolved solute atoms in solution. Tempering will cause the dissolved alloying elements to precipitate, or in the case of quenched steels, improve impact strength and ductile properties. Often, mechanical and thermal treatments are combined in what is known as thermo-mechanical treatments for better properties and more efficient processing of materials. These processes are common to high alloy special steels, super alloys and titanium alloys. Heat treating is a group of industrial and metalworking processes used to alter the physical, and sometimes chemical, properties of a material. The most common application is metallurgical. Heat treatments are also used in the manufacture of many other materials, such as glass. Heat treatment involves the use of heating or chilling, normally to extreme temperatures, to achieve a desired result such as hardening or softening of a material. Heat treatment techniques include annealing, case hardening, precipitation strengthening, tempering and quenching. It is noteworthy that while the term heat treatment applies only to processes where the heating and cooling are done for the specific purpose of altering properties intentionally, heating and cooling often occur incidentally during other manufacturing processes such as hot forming or welding. Metallic materials consist of a microstructure of small crystals called "grains" or crystallites. The nature of the grains (i.e. grain size and composition) is one of the most effective factors that can determine the overall mechanical behavior of the metal. Heat treatment provides an efficient way to manipulate the properties of the metal by controlling the rate of diffusion and the rate of cooling within the microstructure. Heat treating is often used to alter the mechanical properties of an alloy, manipulating properties such as the hardness, strength, toughness, ductility, and elasticity. There are two mechanisms that may change an alloy's properties during heat treatment. The martensite transformation causes the crystals to deform intrinsically. The diffusion mechanism causes changes in the homogeneity of the alloy. The crystal structure consists of atoms that are grouped in a very specific arrangement, called a lattice. In most elements, this order will rearrange itself, depending on conditions like temperature and pressure. This rearrangement, called allotropy or polymorphism, may occur several times, at many different temperatures for a particular metal. In alloys, this rearrangement may cause an element that will not normally dissolve into the base metal to suddenly become soluble, while a reversal of the allotropy will make the elements either partially or completely insoluble. When in the soluble state, the process of diffusion causes the atoms of the dissolved element to spread out, attempting to form a homogenous distribution within the crystals of the base metal. If the alloy is cooled to an insoluble state, the atoms of the dissolved constituents (solutes) may migrate out of the solution. This type of diffusion, called precipitation, leads to nucleation, where the migrating atoms group together at the grain-boundaries. This forms a microstructure generally consisting of two or more distinct phases. Steel that has been cooled slowly, for instance, forms a laminated structure composed of alternating layers of ferrite and cementite, becoming soft pearlite.