Nature, Vol.590, No.7845, 2021
Facile route to bulk ultrafine-grain steels for high strength and ductility
Steels with sub-micrometre grain sizes usually possess high toughness and strength, which makes them promising for lightweighting technologies and energy-saving strategies. So far, the industrial fabrication of ultrafine-grained (UFG) alloys, which generally relies on the manipulation of diffusional phase transformation, has been limited to steels with austenite-to-ferrite transformation(1-3). Moreover, the limited work hardening and uniform elongation of these UFG steels(1,4,5) hinder their widespread application. Here we report the facile mass production of UFG structures in a typical Fe-22Mn-0.6C twinning-induced plasticity steel by minor Cu alloying and manipulation of the recrystallization process through the intragranular nanoprecipitation (within 30 seconds) of a coherent disordered Cu-rich phase. The rapid and copious nanoprecipitation not only prevents the growth of the freshly recrystallized sub-micrometre grains but also enhances the thermal stability of the obtained UFG structure through the Zener pinning mechanism(6). Moreover, owing to their full coherency and disordered nature, the precipitates exhibit weak interactions with dislocations under loading. This approach enables the preparation of a fully recrystallized UFG structure with a grain size of 800 +/- 400 nanometres without the introduction of detrimental lattice defects such as brittle particles and segregated boundaries. Compared with the steel to which no Cu was added, the yield strength of the UFG structure was doubled to around 710 megapascals, with a uniform ductility of 45 per cent and a tensile strength of around 2,000 megapascals. This grain-refinement concept should be extendable to other alloy systems, and the manufacturing processes can be readily applied to existing industrial production lines. Bulk ultrafine-grained steel is prepared by an approach that involves the rapid production of coherent, disordered nanoprecipitates, which restrict grain growth but do not interfere with twinning or dislocation motion, resulting in high strength and ductility.