Many important aspects of the macroscopic material behavior in metals are controlled by the microlevel grain structure. Strength and ductility depends largely on the size and distribution of the grains. Especially the presence of grain boundaries plays an important role, not least in the macroscopic deformation hardening of the material. Grain boundaries pose obstacles to slip deformation by preventing dislocation motion, resulting in localized dislocation storage and heterogeneous deformation fields within the grains. This is closely related to the classical Hall-Petch relation, where the macroscopic flow stress is porportional to the inverse of the square root of the average grain size. More fine-grained materials will thus exhibit a higher flow stress than more coarse-grained materials.
The Hall-Petch effect will, however, tend to reverse as very small grains are considered. At a grain sizes of approximately 10 nm or below, other mechanisms such as grain boundary sliding usually cause a softening effect instead of the common Hall-Petch hardening.
Grain boundaries also contribute to the material behavior in many other aspects. They are often sites for initiation of defects such as cracks, they influence the material's susceptibility to chemical attack such as through corrosion and they influence the electrical conductivity of the material. In addition, migrating grain boundaries tend to interact with second-phase particles and the presence and arrangement of grain boundaries influence both the electrical conductivity and the diffusion properties of the material.