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The Iron-Carbon Phase Diagram

The basis for understanding the heat treatment of steels is the iron-carbon (Fe-C) phase diagram. The Fe-C diagram is really two diagrams in
one, showing the equilibrium between cementite (iron carbide, or Fe3C) and the several phases of iron, as well as the equilibrium between
graphite and the other phases. Steels are alloys of iron, carbon and other elements that contain less than 2% carbon (usually less than 1%),
therefore the portion of the diagram below 2% C; that is, the iron-cementite (Fe-Fe3C) diagram, is more pertinent to steel heat treatment. In cast
irons, high carbon content (1.75-4.0% C) and high silicon content promote graphite formation. Therefore, cast iron technology is based more on
the Fe-graphite diagram.

View diagram (pdf format)

The Iron Carbon Equilibrium Diagram

Pure iron is a relatively soft, ductile low strength metal with few practical engineering applications. The
addition of Carbon to pure iron increases strength and hardenability to useful levels. However it decreases
The addition of Carbon influences the allotropic changes discussed in the last section. Since mechanical
behaviour is directly related to the phases present it is important to study these phases and how they are
influenced by temperature. A study of the Iron- Carbon phase diagram is used for this purpose. Figure 1 is
an Iron - Carbon diagram showing the phases present in any alloy containing up to 6% Carbon. As you
can see a eutectic point also exists in this diagram

Figure1 The Iron Carbon Equilibrium Diagram

This phase diagram tells us the various phases a particular alloy of Iron and Carbon will go through when
allowed to cool down to room temp. Click here to see the phases a 3% Carbon alloy would go through
upon cooling from molten liquid.

In general iron carbon alloys up to 2% are known as steels while from 2% upwards the alloys are
identified as cast iron. Our study mainly deals with the alloys up to 2% carbon i.e the steels part of the
diagram so we will move on to look at this section of the diagram. To see the next page click on this
diagram anywhere up to 2% Carbon content.

The Steel Section of the Iron Carbon Diagram.

Shown here is the steel part of the iron carbon diagram
containing up to 2% Carbon. At the eutectoid point
0.83% Carbon, Austenite which is in a solid solution
changes directly into a solid known as Pearlite which is
a layered structure consisting of layers of Ferrite and

The steel part of the iron- carbon


In order to fully understand the changes

that occur in these different alloys of
steels we will look at individual
microstructures of common steel alloys.

Here we see the various microstructures that exist in phases up to 2% Carbon content. (The red dots
represent carbon dissolved in austenite, in the real structure these would be invisible).

Looks pretty confusing doesn't it. Well do not worry it's really very simple, the easiest way to work on
these diagrams is to take an example. Let's take 3 steels containing Carbon as our examples shall we?

0.4 % Carbon

0.83% Carbon
1.2 % Carbon

0.4 % Carbon

Would you like to see these changes

occuring? If so click here.

0.83 % Carbon

Would you like to see these changes occuring? If so click here.

1.2 % Carbon

Would you like to see these changes occuring? If so click here.

Q1. With reference to the given iron carbon diagram;

a) describe the phases present by A, B, C, and D;
b) name the points E and F and state what they represent.

Phase "A" is
a) A liquid state consisting of iron and carbon.
b) Represents a phase of pearlite with cementite around the grain boundaries.
c) Represents ferrite containing a maxmium of 0.2 % Carbon dissolved in a solid solution and the
atoms in a B.C.C. arrangement.
2. Phase "B" is
a) A phase representing pure pearlite.
b) Represents Austenite, which is a solid solution of carbon dissolved in a F.C.C structure
c) Represents Austenite and ferrite in an F.C.C. structure
3. Phase "C" is
a) Austenite + Liquid.
b) Cementite + Liquid.
c) Liquid iron and carbon.
4. Phase "D" is

a) A phase representing pure pearlite.

b) Represents a microstructure of pearlite with cementite around the grain boundaries.
c) Represents Austenite and ferrite in an F.C.C. structure
5. Point "E" is
a) Austenite + Liquid.
b) Cementite + Liquid.
c) Liquid iron and carbon.
d) The Euctectoid point; At 723 degrees a steel containing 0.87% carbon will change from F.C.C
austenite to a B.C.C pearlite structure.
6. Point "F" is
a) Peritectic reaction.
b) Cementite + Liquid.
c) Liquid iron and carbon.
d) The eutectic point; At this temperature, a transformation from liquid iron to solid austenite and
cementite occurs..

carbon: iron-carbon equilibrium diagram

Britannica Concise

Iron-carbon equilibrium diagram.

Referenced by:
Properties of steel > Effects of carbon
In its pure form, iron is soft and generally not useful as an engineering material; the principal
method of strengthening it and converting it into steel is by adding small amounts of carbon.
In solid steel, carbon is generally found in two forms. Either it is in solid solution in austenite
and ferrite or it is found as a carbide. The carbide form can be iron carbide (Fe 3C, known as
cementite), or it can be a carbide of an alloying element such as titanium. (On the other hand,
in gray iron, carbon appears as flakes or clusters of graphite, owing to the presence of silicon,
which suppresses carbide formation.)
The effects of carbon are best illustrated by an iron-carbon equilibrium diagram (see figure).
The A-B-C line represents the liquidus points (i.e., the temperatures at which molten iron
begins to solidify), and the H-J-E-C line represents the solidus points (at which solidification is
completed). The A-B-C line indicates that solidification temperatures decrease as the carbon
content of an iron melt is increased. (This explains why gray iron, which contains more than 2
percent carbon, is processed at much lower temperatures than steel.) Molten steel containing,
for example, a carbon content of 0.77 percent (shown by the vertical dashed line in thefigure)
begins to solidify at about 1,475 C (2,660 F) and is completely solid at about 1,400 C
(2,550 F). From this point down, the iron crystals are all in an austenitici.e., fcc
arrangement and contain all of the carbon in solid solution. Cooling further, a dramatic change
takes place at about 727 C (1,341 F) when the austenite crystals transform into a fine
lamellar structure consisting of alternating platelets of ferrite and iron carbide. This
microstructure is called pearlite, and the change is called the eutectoidic transformation.
Pearlite has a diamond pyramid hardness (DPH) of approximately 200 kilograms-force per
square millimetre (285,000 pounds per square inch), compared to a DPH of 70 kilograms-force

per square millimetre for pure iron. Cooling steel with a lower carbon content (e.g., 0.25
percent) results in a microstructure containing about 50 percent pearlite and 50 percent
ferrite; this is softer than pearlite, with a DPH of about 130. Steel with more than 0.77
percent carbonfor instance, 1.05 percentcontains in its microstructure pearlite and
cementite; it is harder than pearlite and may have a DPH of 250.

Properties of steel > Effects of heat-treating

Adjusting the carbon content is the simplest way to change the mechanical properties of
steel. Additional changes are made possible by heat-treatingfor instance, by accelerating the
rate of cooling through the austenite-to-ferrite transformation point, shown by the P-S-K line
in thefigure. (This transformation is also called the Ar1 transformation, r standing for
refroidissement, or cooling.) Increasing the cooling rate of pearlitic steel (0.77 percent
carbon) to about 200 C per minute generates a DPH of about 300, and cooling at 400 C per
minute raises the DPH to about 400. The reason for this increasing hardness is the formation
of a finer pearlite and ferrite microstructure than can be obtained during slow cooling in
ambient air. In principle, when steel cools quickly, there is less time for carbon atoms to move
through the lattices and form larger carbides. Cooling even fasterfor instance, by quenching
the steel at about 1,000 C per minuteresults in a complete depression of carbide formation
and forces the undercooled ferrite to hold a large amount of carbon atoms in solution for
which it actually has no room. This generates a new microstructure, martensite. The DPH of
martensite is about 1,000; it is the hardest and most brittle form of steel. Tempering martensitic
steeli.e., raising its temperature to a point such as 400 C and holding it for a time
decreases the hardness and brittleness and produces a strong and tough steel. Quench-andtemper heat treatments are applied at many different cooling rates, holding times, and
temperatures; they constitute a very important means of controlling steel's properties. (See
also below Treating of steel: Heat-treating.)
(Encyclopdia Britannica)
Making a heat begins with an inspection of the refractory lining, with the converter in a turned-down
position. Sometimes a laser contour instrument is used to determine the remaining lining thickness. With
the converter tilted at about 45, scrap is then charged into the furnace by heavy cranes or ...
steel : The process

(Encyclopdia Britannica)
In principle, heat-treating already takes place when steel is hot-rolled at a particular temperature and
cooled afterward at a certain rate, but there are also many heat-treating process facilities specifically
designed to produce particular microstructures and properties. The simplest ...
steel : Heat-treating

(Encyclopdia Britannica)
To make steel ductile for subsequent forming operations, an annealing treatment is applied. In annealing,
the steel is usually held for several hours at several degrees below Ar1 (shown by the P-S-K line in the )
and then slowly cooled. This precipitates and coagulates the carbides and results in ...
steel : Annealing

Iron-Iron Carbide Phase Diagram Example

Fig 1: Fe-Fe3C Phase Diagram (clickable), Materials Science and Metallurgy,

4th ed., Pollack, Prentice-Hall, 1988
Figure 1 shows the equilibrium diagram for combinations of carbon in a solid solution of iron. The
diagram shows iron and carbons combined to form Fe-Fe3C at the 6.67%C end of the diagram. The left
side of the diagram is pure iron combined with carbon, resulting in steel alloys. Three significant regions
can be made relative to the steel portion of the diagram. They are the eutectoid E, the hypoeutectoid A,
and the hypereutectoid B. The right side of the pure iron line is carbon in combination with various forms
of iron called alpha iron (ferrite), gamma iron (austenite), and delta iron. The black dots mark clickable
sections of the diagram.
Allotropic changes take place when there is a change in crystal lattice structure. From 2802-2552F the
delta iron has a body-centered cubic lattice structure. At 2552F, the lattice changes from a body-centered
cubic to a face-centered cubic lattice type. At 1400F, the curve shows a plateau but this does not signify
an allotropic change. It is called the Curie temperature, where the metal changes its magnetic properties.
Two very important phase changes take place at 0.83%C and at 4.3% C. At 0.83%C, the transformation is
eutectoid, called pearlite.
gamma (austenite) --> alpha + Fe3C (cementite)
At 4.3% C and 2066F, the transformation is eutectic, called ledeburite.
L(liquid) --> gamma (austenite) + Fe3C (cementite)
Equilibrium Calculations
1. Given the Fe-Fe3C phase diagram, Fig. 1, calculate the phases present at the eutectoid composition line
a. T = 3000F
b. T = 2200F
c. T = 1333F
d. T = 410F

2. Calculate the phases in the cast-iron portion of the diagram at the eutectic composition of 4.3% C in combination with 95.7% ferrite

a. T = 3000F
b. T = 1670F
c. T = 1333F
3. A eutectoid steel (about 0.8%C) is heated to 800C (1472F) and cooled slowly through the eutectoid temperature. Calculate the
number of grams of carbide that form per 100g of steel.
4. Determine the amount of pearlite in a 99.5% Fe-0.5%C alloy that is cooled slowly from 870C given a basis of 100g of alloy.

1. a. T = 3000F. Since the composition E is eutectoid, the carbon content is 0.83%.
b. T = 2200F. At this temperature, austenite exists as a single-phase solid.
c. T = 1333F. Two phases exist, ferrite and austenite. The percentages are determined by the lever rule: X (X+Y) = (Cy-C) (Cy-Cx).

proeutectoid ferrite = (0.83 - 0.18) / (0.83 - 0.025) x 100 = 80.7%

austenite = (0.18 - 0.025) / (0.83 - 0.025) x 100 = 19.3%
d. T = 410F. A small amount of cementite will precipitate following the solubility line from 0.025% C at 1333F to 0.008% C at room
temperature. The overall percentages of ferrite and cementite are:

ferrite = (6.67 - 0.18) / (6.67 - 0.01) x 100 = 97.4

cementite = (0.18 - 0.01) / (6.67 - 0.01) x 100 = 2.6%
2. a. T = 3000F. At this temperature, the eutectic is all liquid.
b. T = 1670F. Since there is a change of the solubility line, there will be a change in the austenite composition, that will transform to
the eutectoid at 1333F. The overall austenite and cementite composition will be:

austenite = (6.67 - 4.3) / (6.67 - 1.2) x 100 = 43.3%

cementite = (4.3 - 1.2) / (6.67 - 1.2) x 100 = 56.7%
c. T = 1333F. At this temperature the austenite has a eutectoid composition and will
transform into pearlite. The compositions of proeutectoid cementite and austenite are:
eutectoid austenite = (6.67 - 4.3) / (6.67 - 0.83) x 100 = 40.6%
proeutectoid cementite = (4.3 - 0.83) / (6.67 - 0.83) x 100 = 59.4%
The austenite has a eutectoid composition that is:
eutectoid ferrite = (6.67 - 0.83) / (6.67 - 0.025) x 100 = 88%
eutectoid cementite = (0.83 - 0.025) / (6.67 - 0.025) x 100 = 12%
3. Interpolate between alpha (0.02%C) and Fe3C (6.7%) at 1333F

Carbide = (0.8 - 0.02) / (6.7 - 0.02) x 100 = 12g

4. Since pearlite originates from austenite of eutectoid composition, determine the amount of gamma just prior to the eutectoid

From 870C - 780C : 100g austenite with 0.5% C

From 780C - 727C : ferrite separates from austenite and the carbon content of the
austenite increases to about 0.8% C
At 727C (+) : proeutectoid ferrite: composition of ferrite = 0.02% C, amount of carbon =
Gamma that transforms to pearlite: compostion of austenite = 0.8% C. Amount of
austenite = 62g.

At 727C (-): Amount of pearlite = 62g

Plain Iron Carbon Steels

This page includes notes on iron and what happens when iron /carbon mixtures are cooled from liquid to solid. The notes are based on the Iron
Phase Diagram (equilibrium diagram ). A "Phase" is a form of material having characteristic structure and properties. It is a form of the material
which has identifiable composition, structure and boundaries separating it from other phases in the material volume. The diagram below shows
shows the phases present when when Fe-C alloys (C up to 7%) are cooled from liquid to solid.
The left side of the diagram represents pure iron and the right hand of the diagram represents an alloy with 6,67% C. which result on cooling in
the formation of Cementite. This is a intermetallic compound (iron carbide-Fe3 C) which although not 100% stable is but is to all practical
purposes a stable phase. The phase diagram shown is therefore a metastable phase.

Note: Different reference sources indicate the Eutectoid point at 0,8% C and 0,77% C.
Iron Forms
Iron can exist in three forms:
... BCC crystal with crystal dimension a = 2,86 Angstrom exists at temperatures up to 910 oC
... FCC crystal with crystal dimension a = 3,65 Angstrom exists at temperature range 910oC to 1403oC
... BCC crystal with crystal dimension a = 2,93 Angstrom exists at temperature range 1403oC to 1535oC
Solid Phases
The phased diagram includes four solid phases
..The solid solution of carbon in iron. At 0% C this is pure iron. BCC crystal structure.
The maximum solubility of carbon in iron is 0,02% at 723oC. At 0 oC temperature the solubility falls to 0,008%. The carbon atoms are located in
the crystal interstices.
The solid solution of carbon in iron is called austenite . This has a FCC crystal structure with a high solubility for carbon compared with
ferrite. The solubility reaches a maximum of 2,08% at 1148oC . The solubility decreases to 0,8% at 723 oC The carbon atoms are dissolved
interstitially. The difference in solubility between the austenite and Ferrite is the basis for the hardening of steels
This is an intermetallic compound which contains 6,67% C and 93,3% Fe. Cementite is a hard brittle compound with and orthorhombic crystal
structure each unit cell has 12 Fe atoms and 4 C atoms
This is a solid solution of carbon in iron and has a BCC crystal structure. The maximum solubility or C in Fe is 0,09% at 1495oC. This has no real
practical significance in engineering.
Lever Rule
The lever rule can be applied to any phase region an provides an indication of the proportions of the constituent parts at any point on the phase

Applying the lever rule to the eutectoid point (0,80% C at 723oC )

Wt% Ferrite = 100 (6,67 -0,8)/ 6,67- 0,02) = 88%
Wt% Cementite = 100 (0,8- 0,02) /6,67- 0,02) = 12%
If the carbon content of the cooled solid is less than Eutectoid (about 0,8% C) the solid is identified as a hypoeutectoid steel: most steels are this
form. If the carbon content is more then 0,8% then the solid is a hypereutectoid steel. Hypereutectoid steels with carbon content over 1,2% C
are very brittle. Few steels are made with carbon contents over 1,2%.

Generally in order to increase the strength of steel other alloying elements are added which increase the strength while retaining toughness and
A eutectoid solid raised to a temperature just above 723oC and held at this temperature for some time will become a homogeneous austenite
phase. If this solid is then slowly cooled the entire structure will change to a lamellar structure of alternate plates of ferrite and cementite. This
structure is called pearlite because of its mother-of-pearl appearance. As calculated above pearlite consists of 88% (mass) ferrite and 12%
(mass) cementite
Transformation of a hypereutectoid steel (> 0,8% C) will result in pearlite in a matrix of cementite. Transformation of a hypoeutectoid steel (<
0,8% C ) will result in pearlite in a matrix of Ferrite.
Transformation on high cooling rates
Below is an Isothermal Transformation (IT) diagram, also called a TTT (Time, Temperature, Transformation) curve for a eutectoid steel test piece

which has been rapidly cooled in a bath at a set temperature, held for a time and then water quenched.

It can be seen that if the transformation is allowed to take place at a higher temperature then, as above coarse pearlite is formed.
If the test piece is cooled to a lower temperature in a bath a finer pearlitic structure results.
If the test piece is rapidly cooled to a temperature below a value Ms (which varies with the carbon content then a new metastable phase is
produced called Martensite. Martensite is a supersaturated solid solution of carbon in ferrite.
If the test piece is cooled rapidly at a temperature between 220oC and 525oC a phase structure between pearlite and martensite is formed. This is
called Bainite
Bainite is a constituent which forms from austenite in a tempertures range below 530 oC and above Ms . Bainite forms together with pearlite in
steel which are cooled somewhat too fast to form a complete pearlite structure. Bainite is like pearlite a mixture of ferrite and iron carbide but in a
different form. The bainite structure varies from a featherlike pattern to pattern of lens shaped particles depending on the temperature range of
formation. (Featherlike constituent in upper temperature range and lens like in the lower temperature range). Bainite is harder, stronger and
tougher than ferrite-pearlite structures at lower temperatures.
Martensite is the hardest structure formed from austenite. It is a distorted BCC (tetrogonal) it is a body centred tetrogonal structure. The
distortion is caused by trapped carbon atoms which have not been able to nucleate into cementite
Some features of martensite are listed below
The crystal structure is a stressed structure which is resistance to dislocation movement it is therefore strong and relatively brittle. There are
various types of martensite depending on the carbon content:
for C <0,2% the martensite is in the form of well defined thin strips (laths),
for C <= 0,6% plates of martensite are formed ,
for C < = 1,2% the martensite is in the form of arrays of well defined plates
The martensite phase initiates at a temperature Ms and is complete at a temperature Mf.
Ms varies from 500oC for C <= 0,1% to 200oC for C <= 1,2%

The Iron-Carbon Equilibrium Diagram

Printable Version
A study of the constitution and structure of all steels and irons must first start with the iron-carbon equilibrium diagram. Many of the basic features
of this system influence the behavior of even the most complex alloy steels.
For example, the phases found in the simple binary Fe-C system persist in complex steels, but it is necessary to examine the effects alloying
elements have on the formation and properties of these phases. The iron-carbon diagram provides a valuable foundation on which to build

knowledge of both plain carbon and alloy steels in their immense variety.

A study of the constitution and structure of all steels and irons must first start with the iron-carbon equilibrium
diagram. Many of the basic features of this system (Fig. 1) influence the behavior of even the most complex alloy
steels. For example, the phases found in the simple binary Fe-C system persist in complex steels, but it is
necessary to examine the effects alloying elements have on the formation and properties of these phases. The ironcarbon diagram provides a valuable foundation on which to build knowledge of both plain carbon and alloy steels in
their immense variety.

Fig. 1. The iron-carbon diagram.

It should first be pointed out that the normal equilibrium diagram really represents the metastable equilibrium between iron and iron carbide
(cementite). Cementite is metastable, and the true equilibrium should be between iron and graphite. Although graphite occurs extensively in cast
irons (2-4 wt % C), it is usually difficult to obtain this equilibrium phase in steels (0.03-1.5 wt %C). Therefore, the metastable equilibrium between
iron and iron carbide should be considered, because it is relevant to the behavior of most steels in practice.
The much larger phase field of -iron (austenite) compared with that of -iron (ferrite) reflects the much greater solubility of carbon in -iron, with
a maximum value of just over 2 wt % at 1147C (E, Fig.1). This high solubility of carbon in -iron is of extreme importance in heat treatment,
when solution treatment in the -region followed by rapid quenching to room temperature allows a supersaturated solid solution of carbon in iron
to be formed.

The -iron phase field is severely restricted, with a maximum carbon solubility of 0.02 wt% at 723C (P), so over the carbon range encountered
in steels from 0.05 to 1.5 wt%, -iron is normally associated with iron carbide in one form or another. Similarly, the -phase field is very restricted
between 1390 and 1534C and disappears completely when the carbon content reaches 0.5 wt% (B).
There are several temperatures or critical points in the diagram, which are important, both from the basic and from the practical point of view.

Firstly, there is the A1, temperature at which the eutectoid reaction occurs (P-S-K), which is 723C in the
binary diagram.
Secondly, there is the A3, temperature when -iron transforms to -iron. For pure iron this occurs at 910C,
but the transformation temperature is progressively lowered along the line GS by the addition of carbon.
The third point is A4 at which -iron transforms to -iron, 1390C in pure iron, hut this is raised as carbon is
added. The A2, point is the Curie point when iron changes from the ferro- to the paramagnetic condition.
This temperature is 769C for pure iron, but no change in crystal structure is involved. The A1, A3 and A4
points are easily detected by thermal analysis or dilatometry during cooling or heating cycles, and some
hysteresis is observed. Consequently, three values for each point can be obtained. Ac for heating, Ar for
cooling and Ae (equilibrium}, but it should be emphasized that the Ac and Ar values will be sensitive to the
rates of heating and cooling, as well as to the presence of alloying elements.

The great difference in carbon solubility between - and -iron leads normally to the rejection of carbon as iron
carbide at the boundaries of the phase field. The transformation of to - iron occurs via a eutectoid reaction,
which plays a dominant role in heat treatment.
The eutectoid temperature is 723C while the eutectoid composition is 0.80% C(s). On cooling alloys containing less than 0,80% C slowly, hypoeutectoid ferrite is formed from austenite in the range 910-723C with enrichment of the residual austenite in carbon, until at 723C the remaining
austenite, now containing 0.8% carbon transforms to pearlite, a lamellar mixture of ferrite and iron carbide (cementite). In austenite with 0,80 to
2,06% carbon, on cooling slowly in the temperature interval 1147C to 723C, cementite first forms progressively depleting the austenite in
carbon, until at 723C, the austenite contains 0.8% carbon and transforms to pearlite.
Steels with less than about 0.8% carbon are thus hypo-eutectoid alloys with ferrite and pearlite as the prime constituents, the relative volume
fractions being determined by the lever rule which states that as the carbon content is increased, the volume percentage of pearlite increases,
until it is 100% at the eutectoid composition. Above 0.8% C, cementite becomes the hyper-eutectoid phase, and a similar variation in volume
fraction of cementite and pearlite occurs on this side of the eutectoid composition.
The three phases, ferrite, cementite and pearlite are thus the principle constituents of the infrastructure of plain carbon steels, provided they have
been subjected to relatively slow cooling rates to avoid the formation of metastable phases.

The austenite- ferrite transformation

Under equilibrium conditions, pro-eutectoid ferrite will form in iron-carbon alloys containing up to 0.8 % carbon. The
reaction occurs at 910C in pure iron, but takes place between 910C and 723C in iron-carbon alloys.
However, by quenching from the austenitic state to temperatures below the eutectoid temperature Ae 1, ferrite can be formed down to
temperatures as low as 600C. There are pronounced morphological changes as the transformation temperature is lowered, which it should be
emphasized apply in general to hypo-and hyper-eutectoid phases, although in each case there will be variations due to the precise
crystallography of the phases involved. For example, the same principles apply to the formation of cementite from austenite, but it is not difficult
to distinguish ferrite from cementite morphologically.

The austenite-cementite transformation

The Dube classification applies equally well to the various morphologies of cementite formed at progressively lower
transformation temperatures. The initial development of grain boundary allotriomorphs is very similar to that of
ferrite, and the growth of side plates or Widmanstaten cementite follows the same pattern. The cementite plates are
more rigorously crystallographic in form, despite the fact that the orientation relationship with austenite is a more
complex one.
As in the case of ferrite, most of the side plates originate from grain boundary allotriomorphs, but in the cementite reaction more side plates
nucleate at twin boundaries in austenite.

The austenite-pearlite reaction

Pearlite is probably the most familiar micro structural feature in the whole science of metallography. It was
discovered by Sorby over 100 years ago, who correctly assumed it to be a lamellar mixture of iron and iron carbide.
Pearlite is a very common constituent of a wide variety of steels, where it provides a substantial contribution to strength. Lamellar eutectoid
structures of this type are widespread in metallurgy, and frequently pearlite is used as a generic term to describe them.

These structures have much in common with the cellular precipitation reactions. Both types of reaction occur by nucleation and growth, and are,
therefore, diffusion controlled. Pearlite nuclei occur on austenite grain boundaries, but it is clear that they can also be associated with both proeutectoid ferrite and cementite. In commercial steels, pearlite nodules can nucleate on inclusions.

The Metallurgy Of Carbon Steel

The best way to understand the metallurgy of carbon steel is to study the Iron Carbon
Diagram. The diagram shown below is based on the transformation that occurs as a result
of slow heating. Slow cooling will reduce the transformation temperatures; for example: the
A1 point would be reduced from 723C to 690 C. However the fast heating and cooling
rates encountered in welding will have a significant influence on these temperatures, making
the accurate prediction of weld metallurgy using this diagram difficult.

Austenite This phase is only possible in carbon steel at high temperature. It has a
Face Centre Cubic (F.C.C) atomic structure which can contain up to 2% carbon in

Ferrite This phase has a Body Centre Cubic structure (B.C.C) which can hold very
little carbon; typically 0.0001% at room temperature. It can exist as either: alpha or
delta ferrite.

Carbon A very small interstitial atom that tends to fit into clusters of iron atoms. It
strengthens steel and gives it the ability to harden by heat treatment. It also causes
major problems for welding , particularly if it exceeds 0.25% as it creates a hard
microstructure that is susceptible to hydrogen cracking. Carbon forms compounds
with other elements called carbides. Iron Carbide, Chrome Carbide etc.

Cementite Unlike ferrite and austenite, cementite is a very hard intermetallic

compound consisting of 6.7% carbon and the remainder iron, its chemical symbol is

Fe3C. Cementite is very hard, but when mixed with soft ferrite layers its average
hardness is reduced considerably. Slow cooling gives course perlite; soft easy to
machine but poor toughness. Faster cooling gives very fine layers of ferrite and
cementite; harder and tougher

Pearlite A mixture of alternate strips of ferrite and

cementite in a single grain. The distance between
the plates and their thickness is dependant on the
cooling rate of the material; fast cooling creates
thin plates that are close together and slow cooling
creates a much coarser structure possessing less
toughness. The name for this structure is derived
from its mother of pearl appearance under a
microscope. A fully pearlitic structure occurs at
0.8% Carbon. Further increases in carbon will
create cementite at the grain boundaries, which will
start to weaken the steel.

Cooling of a steel below 0.8% carbon When a steel solidifies it forms austenite.
When the temperature falls below the A3 point, grains of ferrite start to form. As
more grains of ferrite start to form the remaining austenite becomes richer in carbon.
At about 723C the remaining austenite, which now contains 0.8% carbon, changes
to pearlite. The resulting structure is a mixture consisting of white grains of ferrite
mixed with darker grains of pearlite. Heating is basically the same thing in reverse.

Martensite If steel is cooled rapidly from austenite, the F.C.C structure rapidly
changes to B.C.C leaving insufficient time for the carbon to form pearlite. This
results in a distorted structure that has the appearance of fine needles. There is no
partial transformation associated with martensite, it either forms or it doesnt.
However, only the parts of a section that cool fast enough will form martensite; in a

thick section it will only form to a certain depth, and if the shape is complex it may
only form in small pockets. The hardness of martensite is solely dependant on
carbon content, it is normally very high, unless the carbon content is exceptionally

Tempering The carbon trapped in the martensite transformation can be released by

heating the steel below the A1 transformation temperature. This release of carbon
from nucleated areas allows the structure to deform plastically and relive some of its
internal stresses. This reduces hardness and increases toughness, but it also tends to
reduce tensile strength. The degree of tempering is dependant on temperature and
time; temperature having the greatest influence.

Annealing This term is often used to define a heat treatment process that produces
some softening of the structure. True annealing involves heating the steel to
austenite and holding for some time to create a stable structure. The steel is then
cooled very slowly to room temperature. This produces a very soft structure, but also
creates very large grains, which are seldom desirable because of poor toughness.

Normalising Returns the structure back to normal. The steel is heated until it just
starts to form austenite; it is then cooled in air. This moderately rapid transformation
creates relatively fine grains with uniform pearlite.

Welding If the temperature profile for a typical weld is plotted against the carbon
equilibrium diagram, a wide variety of transformation and heat treatments will be

Note, the carbon equilibrium diagram shown above is only for illustration, in reality it will
be heavily distorted because of the rapid heating and cooling rates involved in the welding

a) Mixture of ferrite and pearlite grains; temperature below A1, therefore

microstructure not significantly affected.
b) Pearlite transformed to Austenite, but not sufficient temperature available to
exceed the A3 line, therefore not all ferrite grains transform to Austenite. On
cooling, only the transformed grains will be normalised.
c) Temperature just exceeds A3 line, full Austenite transformation. On cooling
all grains will be normalised
d) Temperature significantly exceeds A3 line permitting grains to grow. On
cooling, ferrite will form at the grain boundaries, and a course pearlite will
form inside the grains. A course grain structure is more readily hardened than
a finer one, therefore if the cooling rate between 800C to 500C is rapid, a
hard microstructure will be formed. This is why a brittle fracture is most
likely to propagate in this region.

Welds The metallurgy of a weld is very different from

the parent material. Welding filler metals are designed to
create strong and tough welds, they contain fine oxide
particles that permit the nucleation of fine grains. When
a weld solidifies, its grains grow from the course HAZ
grain structure, further refinement takes place within
these course grains creating the typical acicular ferrite
formation shown opposite.