Widmanstätten pattern

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Segment of the Toluca meteorite, about 10 cm wide TolucaMeteorite.jpg
Segment of the Toluca meteorite, about 10 cm wide

Widmanstätten patterns, also known as Thomson structures, are figures of long nickeliron crystals, found in the octahedrite iron meteorites and some pallasites. They consist of a fine interleaving of kamacite and taenite bands or ribbons called lamellae . Commonly, in gaps between the lamellae, a fine-grained mixture of kamacite and taenite called plessite can be found. Widmanstätten patterns describe features in modern steels, [1] titanium and zirconium alloys.



Widmanstatten pattern in the Staunton meteorite Widmanstatten pattern Staunton meteorite.jpg
Widmanstätten pattern in the Staunton meteorite

In 1808, these figures were named after Count Alois von Beckh Widmanstätten, the director of the Imperial Porcelain works in Vienna. While flame heating iron meteorites, [3] Widmanstätten noticed color and luster zone differentiation as the various iron alloys oxidized at different rates. He did not publish his findings, claiming them only via oral communication with his colleagues. The discovery was acknowledged by Carl von Schreibers, director of the Vienna Mineral and Zoology Cabinet, who named the structure after Widmanstätten. [4] [5] :124 However, it is now believed that the discovery of the metal crystal pattern should actually be assigned to the English mineralogist William (Guglielmo) Thomson, as he published the same findings four years earlier. [6] [5] [7] [8]

Working in Naples in 1804, Thomson treated a Krasnojarsk meteorite with nitric acid in an effort to remove the dull patina caused by oxidation. Shortly after the acid made contact with the metal, strange figures appeared on the surface, which he detailed as described above. Civil wars and political instability in southern Italy made it difficult for Thomson to maintain contact with his colleagues in England. This was demonstrated in his loss of important correspondence when its carrier was murdered. [7] As a result, in 1804, his findings were only published in French in the Bibliothèque Britannique. [5] :124–125 [7] [9] At the beginning of 1806, Napoleon invaded the Kingdom of Naples and Thomson was forced to flee to Sicily [7] and in November of that year, he died in Palermo at the age of 46. In 1808, Thomson's work was again published posthumously in Italian (translated from the original English manuscript) in Atti dell'Accademia Delle Scienze di Siena. [10] The Napoleonic wars obstructed Thomson's contacts with the scientific community and his travels across Europe, in addition to his early death, obscured his contributions for many years.


The most common names for these figures are Widmanstätten pattern and Widmanstätten structure, however there are some spelling variations:

Moreover, due to the discover priority of G. Thomson, several authors suggested to call these figures Thomson structure or Thomson-Widmanstätten structure. [5] [7] [8]

Lamellae formation mechanism

Phase diagram explaining how the pattern forms. First meteoric iron is exclusively composed of taenite. When cooling off it passes a phase boundary where kamacite is exsolved from taenite. Meteoric iron with less than about 6% nickel (hexahedrite) is completely changed to kamacite. Meteoric iron phase diagram taenite kamacite.svg
Phase diagram explaining how the pattern forms. First meteoric iron is exclusively composed of taenite. When cooling off it passes a phase boundary where kamacite is exsolved from taenite. Meteoric iron with less than about 6% nickel (hexahedrite) is completely changed to kamacite.
Widmanstatten pattern, metallographic polished section Widmannstaetten.png
Widmanstätten pattern, metallographic polished section

Iron and nickel form homogeneous alloys at temperatures below the melting point; these alloys are taenite. At temperatures below 900 to 600 °C (depending on the Ni content), two alloys with different nickel content are stable: kamacite with lower Ni-content (5 to 15% Ni) and taenite with high Ni (up to 50%). Octahedrite meteorites have a nickel content intermediate between the norm for kamacite and taenite; this leads under slow cooling conditions to the precipitation of kamacite and growth of kamacite plates along certain crystallographic planes in the taenite crystal lattice.

The formation of Ni-poor kamacite proceeds by diffusion of Ni in the solid alloy at temperatures between 700 and 450 °C, and can only take place during very slow cooling, about 100 to 10,000 °C/Myr, with total cooling times of 10 Myr or less. [12] This explains why this structure cannot be reproduced in the laboratory.

The crystalline patterns become visible when the meteorites are cut, polished, and acid etched, because taenite is more resistant to the acid.

The fine Widmanstatten pattern (lamellae width 0.3mm) of a Gibeon meteorite. Widmanstatten pattern kevinzim.jpg
The fine Widmanstätten pattern (lamellae width 0.3mm) of a Gibeon meteorite.

The dimension of kamacite lamellae ranges from coarsest to finest (upon their size) as the nickel content increases. This classification is called structural classification .


Since nickel-iron crystals grow to lengths of some centimeters only when the solid metal cools down at an exceptionally slow rate (over several million years), the presence of these patterns is the proof of the extraterrestrial origin of the material and can be used to easily determine if a piece of iron comes from a meteorite.[ citation needed ]


The methods used to reveal the Widmanstätten pattern on iron meteorites vary. Most commonly, the slice is ground and polished, cleaned, etched with a chemical such as nitric acid or ferric chloride, washed, and dried. [13] [14]

Shape and orientation

Octahedron 120px-Octahedron-slowturn.gif
Different cuts produce different Widmanstatten patterns Cutting the octaedron.png
Different cuts produce different Widmanstätten patterns

Cutting the meteorite along different planes affects the shape and direction of Widmanstätten figures because kamacite lamellae in octahedrites are precisely arranged. Octahedrites derive their name from the crystal structure paralleling an octahedron. Opposite faces are parallel so, although an octahedron has 8 faces, there are only 4 sets of kamacite plates. Iron and nickel-iron form crystals with an external octahedral structure only very rarely, but these orientations are still plainly detectable crystallographically without the external habit. Cutting an octahedrite meteorite along different planes (or any other material with octahedral symmetry, which is a sub-class of cubic symmetry) will result in one of these cases:

Structures in non-meteoritic materials

The term Widmanstätten structure is also used on non-meteoritic material to indicate a structure with a geometrical pattern resulting from the formation of a new phase along certain crystallographic planes of the parent phase, such as the basketweave structure in some zirconium alloys. The Widmanstätten structures form due to the growth of new phases within the grain boundaries of the parent metals, generally increasing the hardness and brittleness of the metal. The structures form due to the precipitation of a single crystal-phase into two separate phases. In this way, the Widmanstätten transformation differs from other transformations, such as a martensite or ferrite transformation. The structures form at very precise angles, which may vary depending on the arrangement of the crystal lattices. These are usually very small structures that must be viewed through a microscope, because a very long cooling rate is generally needed to produce structures visible to the naked eye. However, they usually have a great and often an undesirable effect on the properties of the alloy. [15]

Widmanstätten structures tend to form within a certain temperature range, growing larger over time. In carbon steel, for example, Widmanstätten structures form during tempering if the steel is held within a range around 500 °F (260 °C) for long periods of time. These structures form as needle or plate-like growths of cementite within the crystal boundaries of the martensite. This increases the brittleness of the steel in a way that can only be relieved by recrystallizing. Widmanstätten structures made from ferrite sometimes occur in carbon steel, if the carbon content is below but near the eutectoid composition (~ 0.8% carbon). This occurs as long needles of ferrite within the pearlite. [15]

Widmanstätten structures form in many other metals as well. They will form in brass, especially if the alloy has a very high zinc content, becoming needles of zinc in the copper matrix. The needles will usually form when the brass cools from the recrystallization temperature, and will become very coarse if the brass is annealed to 1,112 °F (600 °C) for long periods of time. [15] Telluric iron, which is an iron-nickel alloy very similar to meteorites, also displays very coarse Widmanstätten structures. Telluric iron is metallic iron, rather than an ore (in which iron is usually found), and it originated from the Earth rather than from space. Telluric iron is an extremely rare metal, found only in a few places in the world. Like meteorites, the very coarse Widmanstätten structures most likely develop through very slow cooling, except that the cooling occurred in the Earth's mantle and crust rather than in the vacuum and microgravity of space. [16] Such patterns have also been seen in mulberry, a ternary uranium alloy, after aging at or below 400 °C for periods of minutes to hours produces a monoclinic ɑ phase. [17]

However, the appearance, the composition and the formation process of these terrestrial Widmanstätten structures are different from the characteristic structure of iron meteorites.

When an iron meteorite is forged into a tool or weapon, the Widmanstätten patterns remain, but become stretched and distorted. The patterns usually cannot be fully eliminated by blacksmithing, even through extensive working. When a knife or tool is forged from meteoric iron and then polished, the patterns appear in the surface of the metal, albeit distorted, but they tend to retain some of the original octahedral shape and the appearance of thin lamellae criss-crossing each other. [18] Pattern-welded steels such as Damascus steel also bear patterns, but they are easily discernible from any Widmanstätten pattern.

See also

Related Research Articles

Alloy Mixture or metallic solid solution composed of two or more elements

An alloy is an admixture of metals, or a metal combined with one or more other elements. For example, combining the metallic elements gold and copper produces red gold, gold and silver becomes white gold, and silver combined with copper produces sterling silver. Combining iron with non-metallic carbon or silicon produces alloys called steel or silicon steel. The resulting mixture forms a substance with properties that often differ from those of the pure metals, such as increased strength or hardness. Unlike other substances that may contain metallic bases but do not behave as metals, such as aluminium oxide (sapphire), beryllium aluminium silicate (emerald) or sodium chloride (salt), an alloy will retain all the properties of a metal in the resulting material, such as electrical conductivity, ductility, opacity, and luster. Alloys are used in a wide variety of applications, from the steel alloys, used in everything from buildings to automobiles to surgical tools, to exotic titanium alloys used in the aerospace industry, to beryllium-copper alloys for non-sparking tools. In some cases, a combination of metals may reduce the overall cost of the material while preserving important properties. In other cases, the combination of metals imparts synergistic properties to the constituent metal elements such as corrosion resistance or mechanical strength. Examples of alloys are steel, solder, brass, pewter, duralumin, bronze, and amalgams.

Kamacite An alloy of iron and nickel found in meteorites

Kamacite is an alloy of iron and nickel, which is found on Earth only in meteorites. The proportion iron:nickel is between 90:10 and 95:5; small quantities of other elements, such as cobalt or carbon may also be present. The mineral has a metallic luster, is gray and has no clear cleavage although its crystal structure is isometric-hexoctahedral. Its density is about 8 g/cm3 and its hardness is 4 on the Mohs scale. It is also sometimes called balkeneisen.

Octahedrite Structural class of iron meteorites

Octahedrites are the most common structural class of iron meteorites. The structures occur because the meteoric iron has a certain nickel concentration that leads to the exsolution of kamacite out of taenite while cooling.


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.

Meteoric iron Iron originating from a meteorite rather than from the Earth since formation

Meteoric iron, sometimes meteoritic iron, is a native metal and early-universe protoplanetary-disk remnant found in meteorites and made from the elements iron and nickel mainly in the form of the mineral phases kamacite and taenite. Meteoric iron makes up the bulk of iron meteorites but is also found in other meteorites. Apart from minor amounts of telluric iron, meteoric iron is the only naturally occurring native metal of the element iron on the Earth's surface.


Ataxites are a structural class of iron meteorites with a high nickel content and show no Widmanstätten patterns upon etching.


Hexahedrites are a structural class of iron meteorite. They are composed almost exclusively of the nickel–iron alloy kamacite and are lower in nickel content than the octahedrites. The nickel concentration in hexahedrites is always below 5.8% and only rarely below 5.3%.


Taenite (Fe,Ni) is a mineral found naturally on Earth mostly in iron meteorites. It is an alloy of iron and nickel, with nickel proportions of 20% up to 65%.


Plessite is a meteorite texture consisting of a fine-grained mixture of the minerals kamacite and taenite found in the octahedrite iron meteorites. It occurs in gaps between the larger bands of kamacite and taenite which form Widmanstätten patterns.

Neumann lines

Neumann lines, or Neumann bands, are fine patterns of parallel lines seen in cross-sections of many hexahedrite iron meteorites in the kamacite phase, although they may appear also in octahedrites provided the kamacite phase is about 30 micrometres wide. They can be seen after a polished meteorite cross-section is treated with acid. The lines are indicative of a shock-induced deformation of the kamacite crystal, and are thought to be due to impact events on the parent body of the meteorite.

Iron meteorite

Iron meteorites, also known as siderites, or ferrous meteorites, are a type of meteorites that consist overwhelmingly of an iron–nickel alloy known as meteoric iron that usually consists of two mineral phases: kamacite and taenite. Iron meteorites originate from cores of planetesimals.

Iron–nickel alloy

An iron–nickel alloy or nickel–iron alloy, abbreviated FeNi or NiFe, is a group of alloys consisting primarily of the elements nickel (Ni) and iron (Fe). It is the main constituent of the "iron" planetary cores and iron meteorites. The acronym NiFe refers to various chemical reactions that involve an iron–nickel catalyst or component, or in geology, to the general composition of planetary cores.

Antitaenite is a meteoritic metal alloy mineral composed of iron and nickel, 20–40% Ni that has a face centered cubic crystal structure.

Telluric iron

Telluric iron, also called native iron, is iron that originated on Earth, and is found in a metallic form rather than as an ore. Telluric iron is extremely rare, with only one known major deposit in the world, located in Greenland.

IAB meteorite

IAB meteorites are a group of iron meteorites according to their overall composition and a group of primitive achondrites because of silicate inclusions that show a strong affinity to winonaites and chondrites.

IVB meteorite

IVB meteorites are a group of ataxite iron meteorites classified as achondrites. The IVB group has the most extreme chemical compositions of all iron meteorites, meaning that examples of the group are depleted in volatile elements and enriched in refractory elements compared to other iron meteorites.


Tetrataenite is a native metal composed of chemically-ordered L10-type FeNi, recognized as a mineral in 1980. The mineral is named after its tetragonal crystal structure and its relation to the iron-nickel alloy, taenite. It is one of the mineral phases found in meteoric iron.

This is a glossary of terms used in meteoritics, the science of meteorites.

IIAB meteorites

IIAB meteorites are a group of iron meteorites. Their structural classification ranges from hexahedrites to octahedrites. IIABs have the lowest concentration of nickel of all iron meteorite groups. All iron meteorites are derived from the metallic planetary cores of their respective parent bodies, but in the case of the IIABs the metallic magma separated to form not only this meteorite group but also the IIG group.


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