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Iron-carbon phase diagram, showing the conditions under which austenite (g) is stable in carbon steel. Iron carbon phase diagram.svg
Iron-carbon phase diagram, showing the conditions under which austenite (γ) is stable in carbon steel.
Allotropes of iron; alpha iron and gamma iron IronAlfa&IronGamma.svg
Allotropes of iron; alpha iron and gamma iron

Austenite, also known as gamma-phase iron (γ-Fe), is a metallic, non-magnetic allotrope of iron or a solid solution of iron, with an alloying element. [1] In plain-carbon steel, austenite exists above the critical eutectoid temperature of 1000 K (727 °C); other alloys of steel have different eutectoid temperatures. The austenite allotrope is named after Sir William Chandler Roberts-Austen (1843–1902); [2] it exists at room temperature in some stainless steels due to the presence of nickel stabilizing the austenite at lower temperatures.


Allotrope of iron

From 912 to 1,394 °C (1,674 to 2,541 °F) alpha iron undergoes a phase transition from body-centred cubic (BCC) to the face-centred cubic (FCC) configuration of gamma iron, also called austenite. This is similarly soft and ductile but can dissolve considerably more carbon (as much as 2.03% by mass at 1,146 °C (2,095 °F)). This gamma form of iron is present in the most commonly used type of stainless steel [ citation needed ] for making hospital and food-service equipment.


Austenitization means to heat the iron, iron-based metal, or steel to a temperature at which it changes crystal structure from ferrite to austenite. [3] The more open structure of the austenite is then able to absorb carbon from the iron-carbides in carbon steel. An incomplete initial austenitization can leave undissolved carbides in the matrix. [4]

For some iron metals, iron-based metals, and steels, the presence of carbides may occur during the austenitization step. The term commonly used for this is two-phase austenitization. [5]


Austempering is a hardening process that is used on iron-based metals to promote better mechanical properties. The metal is heated into the austenite region of the iron-cementite phase diagram and then quenched in a salt bath or other heat extraction medium that is between temperatures of 300–375 °C (572–707 °F). The metal is annealed in this temperature range until the austenite turns to bainite or ausferrite (bainitic ferrite + high-carbon austenite). [6]

By changing the temperature for austenitization, the austempering process can yield different and desired microstructures. [7] A higher austenitization temperature can produce a higher carbon content in austenite, whereas a lower temperature produces a more uniform distribution of austempered structure. [7] The carbon content in austenite as a function of austempering time has been established. [8]

Behavior in plain carbon-steel

As austenite cools, the carbon diffuses out of the austenite and forms carbon rich iron-carbide (cementite) and leaves behind carbon poor ferrite. Depending on alloy composition, a layering of ferrite and cementite, called pearlite, may form. If the rate of cooling is very swift, the carbon does not have time enough to diffuse and the alloy may experience a large lattice distortion known as martensitic transformation in which it transforms into martensite, a body centered tetragonal structure (BCT).The rate of cooling determines the relative proportions of martensite, ferrite, and cementite, and therefore determines the mechanical properties of the resulting steel, such as hardness and tensile strength.

A high cooling rate of thick sections will cause a steep thermal gradient in the material. The outer layers of the heat treated part will cool faster and shrink more, causing it to be under tension and thermal staining. At high cooling rates, the material will transform from austenite to martensite which is much harder and will generate cracks at much lower strains. The volume change (martensite is less dense than austenite) [9] can generate stresses as well. The difference in strain rates of the inner and outer portion of the part may cause cracks to develop in the outer portion, compelling the use of slower quenching rates to avoid this. By alloying the steel with tungsten, the carbon diffusion is slowed and the transformation to BCT allotrope occurs at lower temperatures, thereby avoiding the cracking. Such a material is said to have its hardenability increased. Tempering following quenching will transform some of the brittle martensite into tempered martensite. If a low-hardenability steel is quenched, a significant amount of austenite will be retained in the microstructure, leaving the steel with internal stresses that leave the product prone to sudden fracture.

Behavior in cast iron

Heating white cast iron above 727 °C (1,341 °F) causes the formation of austenite in crystals of primary cementite. [10] This austenisation of white iron occurs in primary cementite at the interphase boundary with ferrite. [10] When the grains of austenite form in cementite, they occur as lamellar clusters oriented along the cementite crystal layer surface. [10] Austenite is formed by diffusion of carbon atoms from cementite into ferrite. [10] [11]


The addition of certain alloying elements, such as manganese and nickel, can stabilize the austenitic structure, facilitating heat-treatment of low-alloy steels. In the extreme case of austenitic stainless steel, much higher alloy content makes this structure stable even at room temperature. On the other hand, such elements as silicon, molybdenum, and chromium tend to de-stabilize austenite, raising the eutectoid temperature.

Austenite is only stable above 910 °C (1,670 °F) in bulk metal form. However, fcc transition metals can be grown on a face-centered cubic (fcc) or diamond cubic. [12] The epitaxial growth of austenite on the diamond (100) face is feasible because of the close lattice match and the symmetry of the diamond (100) face is fcc. More than a monolayer of γ-iron can be grown because the critical thickness for the strained multilayer is greater than a monolayer. [12] The determined critical thickness is in close agreement with theoretical prediction. [12]

Austenite transformation and Curie point

In many magnetic ferrous alloys, the Curie point, the temperature at which magnetic materials cease to behave magnetically, occurs at nearly the same temperature as the austenite transformation. This behavior is attributed to the paramagnetic nature of austenite, while both martensite [13] and ferrite [14] [15] are strongly ferromagnetic.

Thermo-optical emission

During heat treating, a blacksmith causes phase changes in the iron-carbon system in order to control the material's mechanical properties, often using the annealing, quenching, and tempering processes. In this context, the color of light, or "blackbody radiation," emitted by the workpiece is an approximate gauge of temperature. Temperature is often gauged by watching the color temperature of the work, with the transition from a deep cherry-red to orange-red (815 °C (1,499 °F) to 871 °C (1,600 °F)) corresponding to the formation of austenite in medium and high-carbon steel. In the visible spectrum, this glow increases in brightness as temperature increases, and when cherry-red the glow is near its lowest intensity and may not be visible in ambient light. Therefore, blacksmiths usually austenitize steel in low-light conditions, to help accurately judge the color of the glow.

See also

Related Research Articles

Steel Metal alloy made by combining iron with other elements

Steel is an alloy of iron with typically a few percent of carbon to improve its strength and fracture resistance compared to iron. Many other elements may be present or added. Stainless steels that are corrosion- and oxidation-resistant need typically an additional 11% chromium. Because of its high tensile strength and low cost, steel is used in buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, trains, cars, machines, electrical appliances, and weapons. Iron is the base metal of steel. Depending on the temperature, it can take two crystalline forms : body-centred cubic and face-centred cubic. It's the interaction of the allotropes of iron with the alloying elements, primarily carbon, that gives steel and cast iron their range of unique properties.

Heat treating Process of heating something to alter it

Heat treating is a group of industrial, thermal and metalworking processes used to alter the physical, and sometimes chemical, properties of a material. The most common application is metallurgical. Heat treatments are also used in the manufacture of many other materials, such as glass. Heat treatment involves the use of heating or chilling, normally to extreme temperatures, to achieve the desired result such as hardening or softening of a material. Heat treatment techniques include annealing, case hardening, precipitation strengthening, tempering, carburizing, normalizing and quenching. Although the term heat treatment applies only to processes where the heating and cooling are done for the specific purpose of altering properties intentionally, heating and cooling often occur incidentally during other manufacturing processes such as hot forming or welding.


Martensite is a very hard form of steel crystalline structure. It is named after German metallurgist Adolf Martens. By analogy the term can also refer to any crystal structure that is formed by diffusionless transformation.


Cementite (or iron carbide) is a compound of iron and carbon, more precisely an intermediate transition metal carbide with the formula Fe3C. By weight, it is 6.67% carbon and 93.3% iron. It has an orthorhombic crystal structure. It is a hard, brittle material, normally classified as a ceramic in its pure form, and is a frequently found and important constituent in ferrous metallurgy. While cementite is present in most steels and cast irons, it is produced as a raw material in the iron carbide process, which belongs to the family of alternative ironmaking technologies. The name cementite originated from the research of Floris Osmond and J. Werth, where the structure of solidified steel consists of a kind of cellular tissue in theory, with ferrite as the nucleus and Fe3C the envelope of the cells. The carbide therefore cemented the iron.


Bainite is a plate-like microstructure that forms in steels at temperatures of 125–550 °C. First described by E. S. Davenport and Edgar Bain, it is one of the products that may form when austenite is cooled past a temperature where it no longer is thermodynamically stable with respect to ferrite, cementite, or ferrite and cementite. Davenport and Bain originally described the microstructure as being similar in appearance to tempered martensite.

High-strength low-alloy steel

High-strength low-alloy steel (HSLA) is a type of alloy steel that provides better mechanical properties or greater resistance to corrosion than carbon steel. HSLA steels vary from other steels in that they are not made to meet a specific chemical composition but rather specific mechanical properties. They have a carbon content between 0.05–0.25% to retain formability and weldability. Other alloying elements include up to 2.0% manganese and small quantities of copper, nickel, niobium, nitrogen, vanadium, chromium, molybdenum, titanium, calcium, rare earth elements, or zirconium. Copper, titanium, vanadium, and niobium are added for strengthening purposes. These elements are intended to alter the microstructure of carbon steels, which is usually a ferrite-pearlite aggregate, to produce a very fine dispersion of alloy carbides in an almost pure ferrite matrix. This eliminates the toughness-reducing effect of a pearlitic volume fraction yet maintains and increases the material's strength by refining the grain size, which in the case of ferrite increases yield strength by 50% for every halving of the mean grain diameter. Precipitation strengthening plays a minor role, too. Their yield strengths can be anywhere between 250–590 megapascals (36,000–86,000 psi). Because of their higher strength and toughness HSLA steels usually require 25 to 30% more power to form, as compared to carbon steels.


Pearlite is a two-phased, lamellar structure composed of alternating layers of ferrite and cementite that occurs in some steels and cast irons. During slow cooling of an iron-carbon alloy, pearlite forms by a eutectoid reaction as austenite cools below 723 °C (1,333 °F). Pearlite is a microstructure occurring in many common grades of steels.

Carbon steel Steel in which the main interstitial alloying constituent is carbon

Carbon steel is a steel with carbon content from about 0.05% up to 2.1% by weight. The definition of carbon steel from the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) states:

Quenching Rapid cooling of a workpiece to obtain certain material properties

In materials science, quenching is the rapid cooling of a workpiece in water, oil or air to obtain certain material properties. A type of heat treating, quenching prevents undesired low-temperature processes, such as phase transformations, from occurring. It does this by reducing the window of time during which these undesired reactions are both thermodynamically favorable, and kinetically accessible; for instance, quenching can reduce the crystal grain size of both metallic and plastic materials, increasing their hardness.

Tempering (metallurgy) Process of heat treating used to increase toughness of iron-based alloys

Tempering is a process of heat treating, which is used to increase the toughness of iron-based alloys. Tempering is usually performed after hardening, to reduce some of the excess hardness, and is done by heating the metal to some temperature below the critical point for a certain period of time, then allowing it to cool in still air. The exact temperature determines the amount of hardness removed, and depends on both the specific composition of the alloy and on the desired properties in the finished product. For instance, very hard tools are often tempered at low temperatures, while springs are tempered at much higher temperatures.

Hardenability Depth to which a metal is hardened after being submitted to a thermal treatment

The hardenability of a metal alloy is the depth to which a material is hardened after putting it through a heat treatment process. It should not be confused with hardness, which is a measure of a sample's resistance to indentation or scratching. It is an important property for welding, since it is inversely proportional to weldability, that is, the ease of welding a material.

Cryogenic hardening is a cryogenic treatment process where the material is cooled to approximately −185 °C (−301 °F), usually using liquid nitrogen. It can have a profound effect on the mechanical properties of certain steels, provided their composition and prior heat treatment are such that they retain some austenite at room temperature. It is designed to increase the amount of martensite in the steel's crystal structure, increasing its strength and hardness, sometimes at the cost of toughness. Presently this treatment is being used on tool steels, high-carbon, high-chromium steels and in some cases to cemented carbide to obtain excellent wear resistance. Recent research shows that there is precipitation of fine carbides in the matrix during this treatment which imparts very high wear resistance to the steels.

Hardening is a metallurgical metalworking process used to increase the hardness of a metal. The hardness of a metal is directly proportional to the uniaxial yield stress at the location of the imposed strain. A harder metal will have a higher resistance to plastic deformation than a less hard metal.

In metallurgy and materials science, annealing is a heat treatment that alters the physical and sometimes chemical properties of a material to increase its ductility and reduce its hardness, making it more workable. It involves heating a material above its recrystallization temperature, maintaining a suitable temperature for an appropriate amount of time and then cooling.

Isothermal transformation diagram

Isothermal transformation diagrams are plots of temperature versus time. They are generated from percentage transformation-vs time measurements, and are useful for understanding the transformations of an alloy steel at elevated temperatures.

Allotropes of iron Form different types of steel

At atmospheric pressure, three allotropic forms of iron exist: alpha iron (α-Fe), gamma iron (γ-Fe), and delta iron (δ-Fe). At very high pressure, a fourth form exists, called epsilon iron (ε-Fe). Some controversial experimental evidence suggests the existence of a fifth high-pressure form that is stable at very high pressures and temperatures.


Austempering is heat treatment that is applied to ferrous metals, most notably steel and ductile iron. In steel it produces a bainite microstructure whereas in cast irons it produces a structure of acicular ferrite and high carbon, stabilized austenite known as ausferrite. It is primarily used to improve mechanical properties or reduce / eliminate distortion. Austempering is defined by both the process and the resultant microstructure. Typical austempering process parameters applied to an unsuitable material will not result in the formation of bainite or ausferrite and thus the final product will not be called austempered. Both microstructures may also be produced via other methods. For example, they may be produced as-cast or air cooled with the proper alloy content. These materials are also not referred to as austempered.

TRIP steel are a class of high-strength steel alloys typically used in naval and marine applications and in the automotive industry. TRIP stands for "Transformation induced plasticity," which implies a phase transformation in the material, typically when a stress is applied. These alloys are known to possess an outstanding combination of strength and ductility.

Austempered Ductile Iron alloy

Austempered Ductile Iron (ADI) is a form of ductile iron that enjoys high strength and ductility as a result of its microstructure controlled through heat treatment. While conventional ductile iron was discovered in 1943 and the austempering process had been around since the 1930s, the combination of the two technologies was not commercialized until the 1970s.

κ-Carbides are a special class of carbide structures. They are most known for appearing in steels containing manganese and aluminium where they have the molecular formula (Fe,Mn)3AlC.


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