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Carburizing or carburising (chiefly British English) is a heat treatment process in which iron or steel absorbs carbon liberated when the metal is heated in the presence of a carbon bearing material, such as charcoal or carbon monoxide, with the intent of making the metal harder. Depending on the amount of time and temperature, the affected area can vary in carbon content. Longer carburizing times and higher temperatures lead to greater carbon diffusion into the part as well as increased depth of carbon diffusion. When the iron or steel is cooled rapidly by quenching, the higher carbon content on the outer surface becomes hard via the transformation from austenite to martensite, while the core remains soft and tough as a ferritic and/or pearlite microstructure.
This manufacturing process can be characterized by the following key points: It is applied to low-carbon workpieces; workpieces are in contact with a high-carbon gas, liquid or solid; it produces a hard workpiece surface; workpiece cores largely retain their toughness and ductility; and it produces case hardness depths of up to 0.25 inches (6.4 mm). In some cases it serves as a remedy for undesired decarburization that happened earlier in a manufacturing process.
Early carburization used a direct application of charcoal packed onto the metal (initially referred to as case hardening), but modern techniques apply carbon-bearing gases or plasmas (such as carbon dioxide or methane). The process depends primarily upon ambient gas composition and furnace temperature, which must be carefully controlled, as the heat may also impact the microstructure of the rest of the material. For applications where great control over gas composition is desired, carburization may take place under very low pressures in a vacuum chamber.
Plasma carburization is increasingly used in major industrial regimes to improve the surface characteristics (such as wear and corrosion resistance, hardness and load-bearing capacity, in addition to quality-based variables) of various metals, notably stainless steels. The process is used as it is environmentally friendly (in comparison to gaseous or solid carburizing). It also provides an even treatment of components with complex geometry (the plasma can penetrate into holes and tight gaps), making it very flexible in terms of component treatment.
The process of carburization works via the implantation of carbon atoms into the surface layers of a metal. As metals are made up of atoms bound tightly into a metallic crystalline lattice, the implanted carbon atoms force their way into the crystal structure of the metal and either remain in solution (dissolved within the metal crystalline matrix — this normally occurs at lower temperatures) or react with the host metal to form ceramic carbides (normally at higher temperatures, due to the higher mobility of the host metal's atoms). Both of these mechanisms strengthen the surface of the metal, the former by causing lattice strains by virtue of the atoms being forced between those of the host metal and the latter via the formation of very hard particles that resist abrasion. However, each different hardening mechanism leads to different solutions to the initial problem: the former mechanism — known as solid solution strengthening — improves the host metal's resistance to corrosion whilst impairing its increase in hardness; the latter — known as precipitation strengthening — greatly improves the hardness but normally to the detriment of the host metal's corrosion resistance. Engineers using plasma carburization must decide which of the two mechanisms matches their needs.
Gas carburizing is normally carried out at a temperature within the range of 900 to 950 °C.
In oxy-acetylene welding, a carburizing flame is one with little oxygen, which produces a sooty, lower-temperature flame. It is often used to anneal metal, making it more malleable and flexible during the welding process.
A main goal when producing carbonized workpieces is to ensure maximum contact between the workpiece surface and the carbon-rich elements. In gas and liquid carburizing, the workpieces are often supported in mesh baskets or suspended by wire. In pack carburizing, the workpiece and carbon are enclosed in a container to ensure that contact is maintained over as much surface area as possible. Pack carburizing containers are usually made of carbon steel coated with aluminum or heat-resisting nickel-chromium alloy and sealed at all openings with fire clay.
There are different types of elements or materials that can be used to perform this process, but these mainly consist of high carbon content material. A few typical hardening agents include carbon monoxide gas (CO), sodium cyanide and barium chloride, or hardwood charcoal. In gas carburizing, the CO is given off by propane or natural gas. In liquid carburizing, the CO is derived from a molten salt composed mainly of sodium cyanide (NaCN) and barium chloride (BaCl2). In pack carburizing, carbon monoxide is given off by coke or hardwood charcoal.
There are all sorts of workpieces that can be carbonized, which means almost limitless possibilities for the shape of materials that can be carbonized. However careful consideration should be given to materials that contain nonuniform or non-symmetric sections. Different cross sections may have different cooling rates which can cause excessive stresses in the material and result in breakage.
It is virtually impossible to have a workpiece undergo carburization without having some dimensional changes. The amount of these changes varies based on the type of material that is used, the carburizing process that the material undergoes and the original size and shape of the work piece. However changes are small compared to heat-treating operations.
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Typically the materials that are carbonized are low-carbon and alloy steels with initial carbon content ranging from 0.2 to 0.3%. The workpiece surface must be free from contaminates, such as oil oxides, alkaline solutions, which prevent or impede the diffusion of carbon into the workpiece surface.
Comparing different methods
In general, pack carburizing equipment can accommodate larger workpieces than liquid or gas carburizing equipment, but liquid or gas carburizing methods are faster and lend themselves to mechanized material handling. Also the advantages of carburizing over carbonitriding are greater case depth (case depths of greater than 0.3 inch are possible), less distortion, and better impact strength. This makes it perfect for high strength and wear applications (e.g. scissors or swords). The disadvantages include added expense, higher working temperatures, and increased time.
Choice of equipment
In general, gas carburizing is used for parts that are large. Liquid carburizing is used for small and medium parts and pack carburizing can be used for large parts and individual processing of small parts in bulk. Vacuum carburizing (Low Pressure Carburizing. or LPC) can be applied across a large spectrum of parts when used in conjunction with either oil or High Pressure Gas Quenching (HPGQ), depending on the alloying elements within the base material.
- "Carburizing of Steel". The Free Dictionary By Farlex. Retrieved 2012-25-05.
- Oberg, E., Jones, F., and Ryffel, H. (1989) Machinery's Handbook 23rd Edition. New York: Industrial Press Inc.
- "Low-carbon steels". efunda. Retrieved 2012-25-05.
- "Low-carbon steels". efunda. Retrieved 2012-25-05.
- Robert H. Todd, Dell K. Allen and Leo Alting Manufacturing Processes Reference Guide. Industrial Press Inc., 1994. pp. 421–426
- Geoffrey Parrish, Carburizing: Microstructures and Properties. ASM International. 1999. pg 11