Category Archives: Grain growth

Laser Processing of Metals

Lasers have been found to be a very competent and versatile tool in modifying the properties of metallic materials. Laser energy can in fact be used to make the work piece material either harder or more ductile. The high spatial precision of the energy input made possible by using a laser beam also makes it a very interesting tool for manufacturing of functionally graded metals, having mechanical properties that vary in predefined patterns.

Surface hardening by laser shot peening and improvement of the material’s ductility by laser annealing are two methods briefly outlined below

Laser annealing

During cold working of metallic materials – for example by rolling – the material will be subject to significant plastic deformations that greatly increase the strength and hardness of the metal, but which also makes it more brittle and prone to damage and fracture in subsequent manufacturing steps. To restore ductility, a heat treatment is usually performed following cold working. During annealing, the material is kept at an elevated temperature for some duration of time. During annealing, the cold worked material will undergo a sequence of recovery, recrystallization and grain growth, which eventually reduces the hardness and improves ductility. Annealing is, however, usually performed as a bulk process on entire steel components by placing them in a temperature-controlled furnace. However, as shown in Hallberg et al. 2017, significantly more precision can be achieved if a laser beam is used as the heat source. The accuracy of this method is in fact high enough to allow annealing of regions of millimeter size and in arbitrary patterns. This makes laser annealing a very promising tool for manufacturing of functionally graded steels.

Illustration of material property and grain size variation during cold working (left) and subsequent annealing (right) of a metallic material.

Laser Shot Peening (LSP)

The ability of metal components to withstand wear, fatigue and corrosion is of pivotal importance in many engineering applications. This ability can be significantly improved by introducing compressive stresses in the surface layer of the component. Shot peening is one well established method to achieve this, whereby abrasive metallic, glass or ceramic particles are allowed to impact the surface with great velocity. An alternative method is ultrasonic peening where the compressive stresses are caused by a sonic wave impacting with the surface. A third alternative is Laser Shot Peening (LSP). In LSP, short pulses from a high-energy laser beam are used to obtain the desired compressive stresses. All of these methods share common features in terms of them being purely mechanical – i.e. they do not interact thermally with the work piece – and in that they all cause a pressure on the work piece surface which is sufficient to cause plastic deformations and in some cases also martensitic (solid state) phase transformations. Following peening, relaxation takes place during which residual compressive stresses develop. These compressive stresses provide the desired improvement of wear, fatigue and corrosion resistance of the work piece surface. The residual stresses which develop due to plastic deformation and martensitic phase transformation during LSP are studied in Halilovic et al. 2016.

LSP has been found to be the peening process that provides the greatest penetration depth of the region holding the beneficial compressive residual stresses. In addition, the flexibility of working with a laser beam makes it possible to confine the peening to small areas and to peen surfaces in confined spaces - such as near holes and small notches – which are inaccessible by other peening methods.

Schematic illustration of Laser Shot Peening (LSP).

In LSP, the surface of the work piece is covered with an ablative layer which may consist of a layer of black paint or a metallic foil. A laser beam – typically with an intensity in the range between 1 GW/cm2 and 20 GW/cm2 - is focused on the peening region, causing the ablative layer to vaporize. The temperature of the vaporized material increase very rapidly to temperatures in the order of 10 000K which results in ionization and plasma formation. The laser pulse is usually very short (3-30 ns) and the plasma continues to absorb the laser energy during the duration of the pulse. The temperature increase in the plasma gives rise to a hydrodynamic pressure shock wave which propagates into the work piece. To further enhance the process, the work piece and the ablative layer is frequently confined beneath a layer of water or glass. This layer is transparent to the laser beam and reduces the expansion of the plasma away from the target. This confining layer can increase the magnitude of the pressure wave going into the work piece by a factor of five or more. The LSP process can provide a pressure of up to 10 GPa in a spot measuring a few millimeters in radius. The pressure wave propagates into the work piece and cause plastic deformations as the affected material is confined by the surrounding material, compressive residual stresses will develop.

Uranium Dioxide (UO2)

Different kinds of oxide fuels are used in nuclear power plants, most commonly used – and for the longest time – is Uranium Dioxide (UO2). A solid understanding of the fuel performance is central to control in-service performance, properties and degradation of the fuel as well as for safe handling of it.

As fuel material, UO2 is usually sintered into small cylindrical pellets, measuring about 10 mm in diameter and similar in length. These cylinders are stacked in fuel rods inside a Zircalloy cladding. The small radial gap between the pellets and the cladding is usually filled with a pressurized gas such as Helium. A number of such fuel rods are mounted in fuel assemblies together with control rods with a high capacity for neutron absorption. The fuel assemblies are then used as heat source in fission power plants.

As the fuel pellets are “burnt” in the reactor, fission processes take place and the degree of irradiation of the fuel pellets is usual measured in terms of the “burnup”, that is the fraction of the initial material that has undergone fission.

Under common in-service conditions, the core of the fuel pellets can be maintained at a temperature of 2000K while the pellet surface is at around 800K (the melting point of UO2 is approximately 3140K). The outside temperature is maintained by a constant flow of coolant through the fuel assemblies. Under such extreme thermal gradient conditions, the fuel material undergoes drastic changes. These changes have a strong influence on fuel performance and properties such as the thermal conductivity and structural rigidity. The grain structure will have different morphologies in different regions. This is schematically illustrated below.

Cross-section of a UO2 fuel pellet, showing characteristic microstructure variations.

The extreme thermal gradients will also cause so-called “hourglassing” of the fuel pellets along with cracking – both radially and circumferentially – due to thermally induced stresses and swelling due to solid fission products.

By the release of fission gasses (e.g., Xe, Kr, I and Cs), gas-filled pores or voids will form in the microstructure. The gas bubbles form in the grain interiors and migrate by diffusion to coalesce along the grain boundaries.

Formation of gas-filled bubbles, pores and voids in the grain structure of UO2 during irradiation.

The presence of gas bubbles can cause swelling and cracking of the fuel pellet and the gas can also be released inside the Zircalloy cladding, lowering the heat conduction capacity of the Helium that surrounds the pellets. In either case, the integrity of the Zircalloy cladding is compromised.

In Hallberg & Zhu (2015), the stability of grain boundary texture under grain growth in UO2 is studied through level set modeling, taking anisotropic grain boundary properties into account. The characteristic morphologies of faceted voids in UO2, due to heterogeneous interface energies, is studied in Zhu & Hallberg (2015) by 3D phase field simulations.

Recrystallization and grain growth

Recrystallization (RX) is one of the main mechanism to control the evolution of grain microstructures. RX is generally accepted to be defined as the formation of a new grain structure in a cold-worked material and occurs through the formation and migration of high-angle boundaries. The grain boundary migrations are primarily driven by stored energy reduction and minimization of grain boundary surface energy.

Dynamic discontinuous recrystallization (DDRX) in pure Copper, modeled by a cellular automata-based representative volume element. Compression at different temperatures is shown. Note that at the higher temperatures of 975K and 1075K grain coarsening, rather than grain refinement, takes place.
Dynamic discontinuous recrystallization (DDRX) in pure Copper, modeled by a cellular automata-based representative volume element. Compression at different temperatures is shown. Note that at the higher temperatures of 975K and 1075K grain coarsening, rather than grain refinement, takes place.

As a metallic materials is deformed through plastic slip, energy will be accumulated in the material. This energy is to a large extent expended as heat while the remainder is stored in the material microstructure through the generation and redistribution of imperfections, mainly dislocations. By this process, the material becomes increasingly thermodynamically unstable. During subsequent annealing of the material, reduction of the stored energy can take place through relatively slow recovery or by more rapid static recrystallization (SRX). While the recovery proceeds as a continuous process, SRX is discontinuous. During thermomechanical processing of the material, i.e. when the material is exposed to plastic deformation at elevated temperatures, stored energy generation through dislocation accumulation and stored energy reduction through nucleation of new grains work in parallel. This process is commonly labeled dynamic recrystallization (DRX). The latter process of DRX may be further subdivided into a relatively slow continuous dynamic recrystallization (CDRX) or a more rapidly progressing discontinuous dynamic recrystallization (DDRX).

Schematic illustration of microstructure evolution due to discontinuous dynamic recrystallization (DDRX), proceeding by nucleation and growth of new grains. In contrast, no distinct nucleation stage is observable during continuous dynamic recrystallization (CDRX).
Schematic illustration of microstructure evolution due to discontinuous dynamic recrystallization (DDRX), proceeding by nucleation and growth of new grains. In contrast, no distinct nucleation stage is observable during continuous dynamic recrystallization (CDRX).

In materials of high stacking-fault energy, such as aluminum, dynamic recovery is significant and recrystallization occurs mainly by CDRX. In this case, subgrains with low-angle boundaries are formed from dislocation networks. With progressing plastic deformation, misorientation is increased until enough energy is achieved and the initially mobile subgrain walls have become immobilized, allowing new grains to be separated by subgrain growth. In materials of low stacking-fault energy, such as copper, dynamic recovery processes such as cross slip and climb are less influential and the recrystallization is dominated by DDRX during which new grains are nucleated as regions of low dislocation density grow to consume more dislocation-dense surroundings. RX nuclei are commonly accepted to form from subgrains and DDRX will be most significant in the microstructure regions having the highest dislocation density, primarily at grain boundary triple junctions, secondly along grain boundaries and at inclusions and with lesser probability in the grain interiors.

Processing conditions, such as temperature and strain rate, as well as material purity will influence the recrystallization process. This allows some control to be exerted over the resulting microstructure. Simulation models can provide the means for design and processing of materials through recrystallization.