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Case hardening of Carbon steel - Carburizing


Carburizing or case hardning is the addition of carbon to the surface of low-carbon steels at temperatures generally between 850 and 950°C (1560 and 1740°F), at which austenite, with its high solubility for carbon, is the stable crystal structure. Hardening is accomplished when the high-carbon surface layer is quenched to form martensite so that a high-carbon martensitic case with good wear and fatigue resistance is superimposed on a tough, low-carbon steel core.

Case hardness of carburized steels is primarily a function of carbon content. When the carbon content of the steel exceeds about 0.50% additional carbon has no effect on hardness but does enhance hardenability. Carbon in excess of 0.50% may not be dissolved, which would thus require temperatures high enough to ensure carbon-austenite solid solution.

Case hardening depth of carburized steel is a function of carburizing time and the available carbon potential at the surface. When prolonged carburizing times are used for deep case depths, a high carbon potential produces a high surface-carbon content, which may thus result in excessive retained austenite or free carbides. These two microstructural elements both have adverse effects on the distribution of residual stress in the case-hardened part. Consequently, a high carbon potential may be suitable for short carburizing times but not for prolonged carburizing.

Carburizing steels for case hardening usually have base-carbon contents of about 0.2%, with the carbon content of the carburized layer generally being controlled at between 0.8 and 1% C. However, surface carbon is often limited to 0.9% because too high a carbon content can result in retained austenite and brittle martensite.

Most steels that are carburized are killed steels (deoxidized by the addition of aluminum), which maintain fine grain sizes to temperatures of about 1040°C. Steels made to coarse grain practices can be carburized if a double quench provides grain refinement. Double quenching usually consists of a direct quench and then a requench from a lower temperature.

Many alloy steels for case hardening are now specified on the basis of core hardenability. Although the same considerations generally apply to the selection of uncarburized grades, there are some peculiarities in carburizing applications.

First, in a case-hardened steel, the hardenability of both case and core must be considered. Because of the difference in carbon content, case and core have quite different hardenabilities, and this difference is much greater for some steels than for others.

Moreover, the two regions have different in-service functions to perform. Until the introduction of lean alloy steels such as the 86xx series, with and without boron, there was little need to be concerned about case hardenability because the alloy content combined with the high carbon content always provided adequate hardenability. This is still generally true when the steels are direct quenched from carburizing, so that the carbon and alloying elements are in solution in the case austenite. In parts that are reheated for hardening and in heavy-sectioned parts, however, both case and core hardenability requirements should be carefully evaluated.

The relationship between the thermal gradient and the carbon gradient during quenching of a carburized part can make a measurable difference in the case depth as measured by hardness. That is, an increase in base hardenability can produce a higher proportion of martensite for a given carbon level, yielding an increased measured case depth. Therefore, a shallower carbon profile and shorter carburizing time could be used to attain the desired result in a properly chosen steel.

Core Hardness. A common mistake is to specify too narrow a range of core hardness. When the final quench is from a temperature high enough to allow the development of full core hardness, the hardness variation at any location will be that of the hardenability band of the steel at the corresponding position on the end-quenched hardenability specimen.

In standard steels purchased to chemical composition requirements rather than to hardenability, the range can be 20 or more HRC points; for example, 8620 may vary from 20 to 45 HRC at the 4/16 in.(6.35mm) position. The 25-point range emphasizes the advantage of purchasing to hardenability specifications to avoid the intolerable variation possible within the ranges for standard chemistry steels. Another way to control core hardness within narrow limits without resorting to the use of high-alloy steels is to use a final quench from a lower temperature so that full hardness in the case will be developed without the disadvantage of excessive core hardness.

Gears are almost always oil quenched because distortion must be held to the lowest possible level. Therefore, alloy steels are usually selected, with much debate about which particular alloy. The lower-alloy steels such as 4023, 5120, 4118, 8620, and 4620, with a carbon range between 0.15 and 0.25%, are widely used and generally satisfactory. Usually, the first choice is one of the last two steels mentioned, either of which should be safe for all ordinary applications. The final choice, based on service experience or dynamometer testing, should be the least expensive steel that will do the job. For heavy-duty applications, higher-alloy grades such as 4320, 4817, and 9310 are justifiable if based on actual performance tests. The life testing of gears in the same mountings used in service to prove both the design and the steel selection is particularly important.

In other applications, when distortion is not a major factor, the carbon steels described above, water quenched, can be used up to a 50 mm (2 in.) diameter. In larger sizes, low-alloy steels, water quenched, such as 5120, 4023, and 6120 can be used, but possible distortion and quench cracking must be avoided.

Carburizing Methods. While the basic principle of carburizing has remained unchanged since carburizing was first employed, the method used to introduce the carbon into the steel has been a matter of continuous evolution.

In its earliest application, parts were simply placed in a suitable container and covered with a thick layer of carbon powder (pack carburizing). Although effective in introducing carbon, this method was exceedingly slow, and as the demand for greater production grew, a new process using a gaseous atmosphere was developed.

In gas carburizing, the parts are surrounded by a carbon-bearing atmosphere that can be continuously replenished so that a high carbon potential can be maintained. While the rate of carburizing is substantially increased in the gaseous atmosphere, the method requires the use of a multicomponent atmosphere whose composition must be very closely controlled to avoid deleterious side effects, for example, surface and grain-boundary oxides. In addition, a separate piece of equipment is required to generate the atmosphere and control its composition. Despite this increased complexity, gas carburizing has become the most effective and widely used method for carburizing steel parts in large quantities.

In efforts required to simplify the atmosphere, carburizing in an oxygen-free environment at very low pressure (vacuum carburizing) has been explored and developed into a viable and important alternative. Although the furnace enclosure in some respects becomes more complex, the atmosphere is greatly simplified. A single-component atmosphere consisting solely of a simple gaseous hydrocarbon, for example methane, may be used. Furthermore, because the parts are heated in an oxygen-free environment, the carburizing temperature may be increased substantially without the risk of surface or grain-boundary oxidation. The higher temperature permitted increases not only the solid solubility of carbon in the austenite but also its rate of diffusion, so that the time required to achieve the case depth desired is reduced.

Although vacuum carburizing overcomes some of the complexities of gas carbunzing, it introduces a serious new problem that must be addressed. Because vacuum carburizing is conducted at very low pressures, and the rate of flow of the carburizing gas into the furnace is very low, the carbon potential of the gas in deep recesses and blind holes is quickly depleted. Unless this gas is replenished, a great nonuniformity in case depth over the surface of the part is likely to occur. If, in an effort to overcome this problem, the gas pressure is increased significantly, another problem arises, that of free-carbon formation, or sooting.

Thus, in order to obtain cases of reasonably uniform depth over a part of complex shape, the gas pressure must be increased periodically to replenish the depleted atmosphere in recesses and then reduced again to the operating pressure. Clearly, a delicate balance exists in vacuum carburizing: The process conditions must be adjusted to obtain the best compromise between case uniformity, risk of sooting, and carburizing rate.

A method that overcomes both of these major problems, yet retains the desirable features of a simple atmosphere and permissible operating temperature is plasma or ion carburizing.

To summarize, carburizing methods include:

Gas carburizing
Vacuum carburizing
Plasma carburizing
Salt bath carburizing
Pack carburizing
These methods introduce carbon by the use of gas (atmospheric-gas, plasma, and vacuum carburizing), liquids (salt bath carburizing), or solid compounds (pack carburizing). All of these methods have limitations and advantages, but gas carburizing is used most often for large-scale production because it can be accurately controlled and involves a minimum of special handling.
Vacuum carbunzing and plasma carburizing have found applications because of the absence of oxygen in the furnace atmosphere. Salt bath and pack carburizing arc still done occasionally, but have little commercial importance today.

Process characteristics of the above-mentioned carburizing methods fall into two general groups:

Conventional methods, which introduce carbon by gas atmospheres, salt baths or charcoal packs
Plasma methods, which impinge positive carbon ions on the surface of a steel part (the cathode)
The main difference between conventional and plasma methods is the reduced carburizing times achieved in plasma-assisted methods. The quickly attained surface saturation also results in faster diffusion kinetics. Furthermore, plasma carburizing produces very uniform case depths, even in parts with irregular surfaces.
With the conventional methods, carburization always takes place by means of a gaseous phase of carbon monoxide; however, each method also involves different reaction and surface kinetics, producing different case-hardening results.

In general, with conventional methods, carbon monoxide breaks down at the steel surface:

2CO ? CO2 + C

The liberated carbon is readily dissolved by the austenite phase and diffuses into the body of the steel. For some process methods (gas and pack carburizing), the carbon dioxide produced may react with the carbon atmosphere or pack charcoal to produce new carbon monoxide by the reverse reaction.

Carburizing is most frequently performed between 850 and 950°C (1550 and 1750°F), but sometimes higher temperatures are used to reduce cycle times and/or produce deeper depths of the high-carbon surface layer.

A comprehensive model of gas carburization must include algorithms that describe:

Carbon diffusion
Kinetics of the surface reaction
Kinetics of the reaction between endogas and enriching gas
Purging (for batch processes)
The atmosphere control system.


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