Thermal Analysis of the Impact of RT Storage Time on the Strengthening of an Al-Mg-Si Alloy


Despite the large number of papers dealing with the Al -Mg-Si system, the decomposition of the supersaturated solid solutions during the different aging treatments and therefore, the related hardening is still under debate. In the present work, by the use of simple techniques such as the Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC), Microhardness measurements and X-Ray Diffraction (XRD) analysis the precipitation behaviour and the impact of prior natural aging after homogenization on the subsequent microstructural and mechanical evolutions during artificial heat treatment at 160℃, of nuclear aluminium alloy Al-1.32% Mg-0.53% Si (% wt.) alloy, were identified. Through DSC, lattice parameter and microhardness measurements, the precipitation sequence were indirectly identified to be as follows: supersaturated solid solution (S.S.S.) → atomic clusters and GP zones →β” →β’ →β. The evolution of the mechanical properties during natural aging has been explained to be due to GP zones and atomic clusters formation. Storage at RT was found to have an important effect on the mechanical properties of the studied alloy. Under the light of the DSC results, this effect was explained by a slower precipitation kinetics of the β” phase; the atomic clusters and GP zones, which formed during storage at RT and the low concentration of the quenched-in vacancies in the stored samples have a delaying effect upon the nucleation of β” phase. Consequently, the final microstructure developed in these samples is coarse; hence lower mechanical properties are obtained.

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Hayoune, A. (2012) Thermal Analysis of the Impact of RT Storage Time on the Strengthening of an Al-Mg-Si Alloy. Materials Sciences and Applications, 3, 460-466. doi: 10.4236/msa.2012.37065.

1. Introduction

Since the discovery of age hardening of Al-Mg-Si alloys some 90 years ago a significant amount of work on characterising and understanding the precipitation behaviour of these alloys has been carried out [1-15]. Factors such as low degree of activation during irradiation, high corrosion resistance in vapour-water media, high weldability, medium strength, high extrudability have supported the usage of these alloys as structural materials in the industry of nuclear research reactors [1].

These alloys undergo complex structural changes during heat treatment. The extent of these structural changes depends on the applied temperature, the time the material is exposed to temperature, and how fast it is cooled to room temperature. Despite the considerable literature devoted to this subject [2-15], these structural changes have not been fully understood. However, it was generally accepted that the precipitation behaviour follows the scheme: supersaturated solid solution (S.S.S.) à atomic clusters à GP zones à metastable b” à metastable b’ à stable b and that, their properties are highly dependent on the distribution of the alloying elements, Mg and Si, in the matrix and in the developed precipitates.

It is well known that heat treating variables in addition to the final aging time and temperature can have a marked effect on the hardening response of heat-treatable aluminum alloys. Examples of such variables are: delay time between solution heat treating and aging (natural aging), heating rate to the aging temperature, and aging at an intermediate temperature prior to final aging (preaging). Generally, natural aging and preaging treatments are beneficial; they promote fine, uniform precipitate dispersions and high strength [10,12,14]. The situation appears to be more complicated in the A1-Mg-Si system due to the fact that the precipitation reactions in this alloys system are very sensitive the alloys compositions and the ally history.

The precipitation behaviour of these materials is basically investigated based on both the thermal stabilities and the structural aspects of stable/metastable phases. Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) measurements and Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) observations are very helpful tools for this purpose. In the present work a study based on a combination of simple techniques such as Vickers microhardness tests, differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) and X-ray diffraction analysis is presented. It aims to investigate the precipitation behaviour and the impact of prior room temperature aging upon subsequent artificial aging at 160˚C of an Al-1.32%Mg-0.53% Si (wt.%) alloy.

2. Experimental Procedure

The alloy investigated in this study is a base aluminium alloy of the chemical composition of Al-1.32%Mg-0.53%Si (wt.%) alloy. The alloy contains also a small amount of iron (0.094 wt.%) and smaller amounts of other elements (Zn, Cu and Ni). The alloy was received as 2 mm thick sheets. Specimens for microhardness measurements, DSC and XRD analyses were cut from the sheets with a metallographic diamond cutting saw, and grounded to their final shape with emery papers. Final mass of each DSC sample was about 60 mg. All samples were solution treated at 540˚C for 6 h and subsequently cooled by quenching in water at room temperature (WQ). Immediately after quenching, the samples were held at about –15˚C to prevent any microstructural evolution.

As quenched samples as well as annealed at room temperature and 160˚C have been submitted to microhardness measurements and DSC analysis. Vickers microhardness measurements were carried out at room temperature immediately after each aging treatment, using a Controlab (VTD 12 Model) microhardness tester under a 2.94 N load applied for 10 seconds, and an average of at least seven readings were taken for each specimen.

For DSC analysis, tests were performed with a Setaram-SetsysEvolution-1600 DSC apparatus. Temperature and heat flow calibration has been carried out using pure In, Sn, Zn, and Ag2SO4 melting and phase transition points under nitrogen atmosphere. Tests were performed by heating from room temperature (RT) to 540˚C, and then by cooling to RT at 30˚C·min–1 in all cases. To increase measurement sensitivity, a high-purity well annealed aluminium disc of mass approximately equal to that of the sample was used as a reference in each case. Both reference and specimen were enclosed in an alumina pan sealed with an alumina cover. The DSC traces presented in this work were obtained by subtracting the base line from the first run. The base line was obtained from a run with a high-purity well annealed aluminium disc of the same mass in both the sample and the reference pans.

The XRD patterns were collected on a Philips X’-Pert Pro diffractometer using Cu Ka radiation with X-ray generator power set at 1.8 kW (45 kV and 40 mA). In order to characterize the microstructure in term of lattice parameter variations, room temperatures scans were performed in the angular range of 15 - 120 with a step size of 0.02. The lattice parameter measurements were done with the help of X’Pert HighScore Plus software.

3. Results and Discussion

3.1. The Precipitation Sequence

A total of seven enthalpic signals (numbered I-VII), four of which are exothermic, are identified in the DSC spectrum, obtained by heating at 15˚C·min−1 of the as quenched sample (Figure 1). According to several previous works [4-6,8,9,12-14], these calorimetric events can be correlated to the precipitation process as follows:

Ÿ  the first exothermic peak centring around 100˚C (effect I) is caused by GP zones and/or clusters formation;

Ÿ  the small endothermic signal with a minimum at approximately 220˚C (effect II) is produced by the dissolution of the clusters and/or GP zones which have formed below 150˚C;

Ÿ  The major exothermic peak which follows right after and lasts until 300˚C (effect III) is clearly linked with the precipitation of the principal hardening phase b”. The neighbouring exothermic peak between approximately 300˚C and 340˚C (effect IV) is produced by the transformation of b” to b’. The large endothermic peak between approximately 340˚C and 430˚C (effect V) represents the dissolution reaction of the b’ phase;

Ÿ  The last two peaks are exothermic and endothermic (effects VI and VII) are associated with the precipitation and dissolution of the equilibrium b-Mg2Si phase, respectively. It is fair to claim, that some authors [9, 15] have not mentioned the presence of the endothermic peak V in between exothermic peaks for the formation of b”.

The type of the precipitate responsible of each calorimetric peak has been checked through lattice parameter

Figure 1. DSC spectrum obtained at a heating rate of 15˚C·min−1 of the as quenched sample.

and microhardness measurements. Due to the size differences between solute and aluminium atoms (Si and Mg for which DrSi = –3.8% and DrMg = +11.8% where Dri = (ri – rAl)/rAl), the formation of solute rich precipitates (b”, b’ and b) should decrease the lattice parameter [16-18]. Lattice parameter and microhardness measurements obtained from samples heated for 20 min at temperatures corresponding to the different DSC peaks are presented in Figure 2. It can be seen that the calorimetric peaks III, IV and VI are corresponding to a decreasing of the lattice parameter values. However, the calorimetric effect (V) is associated with an increasing of the lattice parameter values. Hence, the calorimetric effects (III), (IV) and (VI) are representative of precipitation reactions (i.e. b”, b’ and b phase precipitation respectively), while the endothermic effect V is due to a dissolution reaction (b’ dissolution). In the other hand, from the microhardness variation as function of temperature, the maximum strengthening corresponds to the precipitates formed at 275˚C (b” phase); due to the large coherency (lattice match) the hardness increase induced by the b” precipitates is more important than that of the b’ and b precipitates.

In view of the foregoing, the response to DSC heating of the as quenched sample agrees reasonably well with the precipitation sequence reported for Al-Mg-Si alloys: supersaturated solid solution (SSSS) à atomic cluster and GP zones à b” à b’à stable b.

3.2. The Natural Aging Effect

The evolution of the microhardness values as function of natural aging (NA) time is shown in Figure 3. This figure shows that the hardness increases to a maximum during the first 24 h of the natural aging, then the material shows a plateau with little or no increase in hardness as the time of the NA proceeds.

Figure 4 shows the DSC traces of the as quenched sample and of samples stored at room temperatures for

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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