As machinists, we seldom encounter microalloy steels. but what do we need to know?
Microalloy steel is manufactured like any other, but the chemical ingredients added at the initial melt of the steel to make it a microalloy include elements like Vanadium, Columbium (sorry, Niobium for us IUPAC purists), Titanium, and higher amounts of Manganese and perhaps Molybdenum or Nickel.
Vanadium, Columbium Niobium, and Titanium are also grain refiners and aggressive Oxygen scavengers, so these steels tend to also have a very fine austenitic grain size.
In forgings, microalloy steels are able to develop higher mechanical properties (yield strengths greater than say 60,000 psi) and higher toughness as forged by just cooling in air or with a light mist water spray.
Normal alloy steels require a full austenitize, quench and temper heat treatment to develop properties greater than as rolled or cold worked.
Since microalloyed steels are able to get higher properties using forging process heat- rather than an additional heating quenching tempering cycle- they can be less expensive to process to get improved mechanical properties.
The developed microstructure ultimately makes the difference. The microstructure developed in the steel depends on the grade and type.
Normal alloy steels require a transformation to martensite that is then tempered in order to achieve higher properties.
Microalloy steel precipitates out various nitirides or carbides and may result in either a very fine ferrite- pearlite microstructure or may transform to bainite.
For machinists, if the steel is already at its hardest condition, the microalloyed microstructure of either ferrite pearlite or bainite is less abrasive than that of a fully quench and tempered alloy steel.
P.S. The non- martensitic structures also have higher toughness. We don’t tend to machine prehardened steels in the precision machining industry, but if you ever are part of a team developing a process path for machining forgings, or finish cuts after induction hardening, these facts might be good to know. Martensite. Georges Basement Bainite 1000X
While Austenitic Grain Size is a result of chemistry (composition), the changes that it evokes in our process are a result of material structure and properties, not just the chemical ‘ingredients.’
Steel that is fully deoxidized and grain refined is more sound, less susceptible to cracking and distorting, and more easily controlled in heat treat. Well worth it in final performance compared to the machinist’s increased tooling costs. Here are 5 Ways Austenitic Fine Grained steels can affect your shop:
Poorer Machinability than Coarse Grained Steels. (The hard oxides and nitrides resulting from deoxidation and grain refinement abrade the edge of tools and coatings- this is one reason that you go through more tooling on Fine Grained Steels.)
Poorer Plastic Forming than Coarse Grained Steels.
Less Distortion in Heat Treating than Coarse Grained Steels
Higher Ductility at the same hardness than Coarse Grained Steels
Shallower Hardenability than Coarse Grained Steels.
Fine Austenitic Grain Size is a result of DELIBERATELY ADDDING grain refining elements to a heat of steel. Because these grain refining elements have been added, the steel has a “Fine Austenitic Grain Size.”
In order to make steels with this Austenitic Fine Grained Structure, the steel is first deoxidized , (usually with Silicon) and then Aluminum, or Vanadium or Niobium are added. Aluminum, Vanadium, and Niobium are called grain refiners.
After the Silicon has scavenged most of the Oxygen out of the molten steel, the grain refiner is added. (In this post I’ll stick with Aluminum as the example.) The added Aluminum reacts with Nitrogen in the molten steel to form Aluminum Nitride particles. These tiny particles precipitate along the boundaries of the Austenite as well as with in the Austenite grains. This restricts the growth of the grains.
Because the deoxidation and grain refinement create hard abrasive oxide and nitride particles, they machine and process differently than coarse grained steels.
Fine Austenitic Grain Size appears on the material test report as an ASTM value of 5 or greater. Values of 5, 6, 7, 8, or “5 and finer” indicate that the material is Austenitic Fine Grained. Typically 7 or 8 was reported for the Aluminum Fine Grain steels that I certified.
The methods for determining Austenitic Grain Size are detailed in ASTM Standard E112, Standard Test Methods for determining Average Grain Size.
To get the Coarse Austenitic Grain Size Story, see our post here.