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The purpose of anneal heat treating may involve one or more of the following aims:

To soften the steel and to improve machinability.
To relieve internal stresses induced by some previous treatment (rolling, forging, uneven cooling).
To remove coarseness of grain.
The treatment is applied to forgings, cold-worked sheets and wire, and castings. The operation consists of:
heating the steel to a certain temperature,
"soaking" at this temperature for a time sufficient to allow the necessary changes to occur,
cooling at a predetermined rate.

Sub-critical Anneal
It is not always necessary to heat the steel into the critical range. Mild steel products which have to be repeatedly cold worked in the processes of manufacture are softened by annealing at 500° to 650°C for several hours. This is known as "process" or "close" annealing, and is commonly employed for wire and sheets. The recrystallisation temperature of pure iron is in the region of 500°C consequently the higher temperature of 650°C brings about rapid recrystallisation of the distorted ferrite Since mild steel contains only a small volume of strained pearlite a high degree of softening is induced. As shown, Fig. 1b illustrates the structure formed consisting of the polyhedral ferrite with elongated pearlite (see also Fig. 2).

Prolonged annealing induces greater ductility at the expense of strength, owing to the tendency of the cementite in the strained pearlite to "ball-up" or spheroidise, as illustrated in Fig. 1c. This is known as "divorced pearlite". The ferrite grains also become larger, particularly if the metal has been cold worked a critical amount. A serious embrittlement sometimes arises after prolonged treatment owing to the formation of cementitic films at the ferrite boundaries. With severe forming operations, cracks are liable to start at these cementite membranes.


Figure 1. Effect of annealing cold-worked mild steel


Figure 2. Effect of annealing at 650°C on worked steel. Ferrite recrystallised. Pearlite remains elongated (x600)

The modern tendency is to use batch or continuous annealing furnaces with an inert purging gas. Batch annealing usually consists of 24-30 hrs 670°C, soak 12 hrs, slow cool 4-5 days. Open coil annealing consists in recoiling loosely with controlled space between wraps and it reduces stickers and discoloration. Continuous annealing is used for thin strip (85% Red) running at about 400 m/min. The cycle is approximately up to 660°C 20 sec, soak and cool 30-40 sec. There is little chance for grain growth and it produces harder and stiffer strip; useful for cans and panelling.  

"Double reduced" steel is formed by heavy reduction (~50%) after annealing but it suffers from directionality. This can be eliminated by heating between 700-920°C and rapidly quenching.

Full Anneal and Normalising Treatments
For steels with less than 0,9% carbon both treatments consist in heating to about 25-50°C above the upper critical point indicated by the Fe-Fe3C equilibrium diagram (Fig. 3). For higher carbon steels the temperature is 50°C above the lower critical point.

heat treating chart

Figure 3. Heat-treatment ranges of steels

Average annealing and hardening temperatures are:

Carbon, %
0.9 to 1.3
Avg.temp. °C

These temperatures allow for the effects of slight variations in the impurities present and also the thermal lag associated with the critical changes. After soaking at the temperature for a time dependent on the thickness of the article, the steel is very slowly cooled. This treatment is known as full annealing, and is used for removing strains from forgings and castings, improving machinability and also when softening and refinement of structure are both required.

Normalising differs from the full annealing in that the metal is allowed to cool in still air. The structure and properties produced, however, varying with the thickness of metal treated. The tensile strength, yield point, reduction of area and impact value are higher than the figures obtained by annealing.

Changes on Annealing
Consider the heating of a 0,3% carbon steel. At the lower critical point (Ac1) each "grain" of pearlite changes to several minute austenite crystals and as the temperature is raised the excess ferrite is dissolved, finally disappearing at the upper critical point (Ac3), still with the production of fine austenite crystals. Time is necessary for the carbon to become uniformly distributed in this austenite. The properties obtained subsequently depend on the coarseness of the pearlite and ferrite and their relative distribution. These depend on:

a) the size of the austenite grains; the smaller their size the better the distribution of the ferrite and pearlite.
b) the rate of cooling through the critical range, which affects both the ferrite and the pearlite.

As the temperature is raised above Ac3 the crystals increase in size. On a certain temperature the growth, which is rapid at first, diminishes. Treatment just above the upper critical point should be aimed at, since the austenite crystals are then small.

By cooling slowly through the critical range, ferrite commences to deposit on a few nuclei at the austenite boundaries. Large rounded ferrite crystals are formed, evenly distributed among the relatively coarse pearlite. With a higher rate of cooling, many ferrite crystals are formed at the austenite boundaries and a network structure of small ferrite crystals is produced with fine pearlite in the centre.

Overheated, Burnt and Underannealed Structures
When the steel is heated well above the upper critical temperature large austenite crystals form. Slow cooling gives rise to the Widmanstätten type of structure, with its characteristic lack of both ductility and resistance to shock. This is known as an overheated structure, and it can be refined by reheating the steel to just above the upper critical point. Surface decarburisation usually occurs during the overheating.

During the Second World War, aircraft engine makers were troubled with overheating (above 1250°C) in drop-stampings made from alloy steels. In the hardened and tempered condition the fractured surface shows dull facets. The minimum overheating temperature depends on the "purity" of the steel and is substantially lower in general for electric steel than for open-hearth steel. The overheated structure in these alloy steels occurs when they are cooled at an intermediate rate from the high temperature. At faster or slower rates the overheated structure may be eliminated. This, together with the fact that the overheating temperature is significantly raised in the presence of high contents of MnS and inclusions, suggests that this overheating is conected in some way with a diffusion and precipitation process, involving MnS. This type of overheating can occur in an atmosphere free from oxygen, thus emphasising the difference between overheating and burning.

As the steel approaches the solidus temperature, incipient fusion and oxidation take place at the grain boundaries. Such a steel is said to be burnt and it is characterised by the presence of brittle iron oxide films, which render the steel unfit for service, except as scrap for remelting.

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