Microstructure


Austenite This phase is only possible in carbon steel at high temperature.  It has a Face Centre Cubic (F.C.C) atomic structure which can contain up to 2% carbon in solution.
Ferrite This phase has a Body Centre Cubic structure (B.C.C) which can hold very little carbon; typically 0.0001% at room temperature.  It can exist as either: alpha or delta ferrite. 
Cementite Unlike ferrite and austenite, cementite is a very hard intermetallic compound consisting of 6.7% carbon and the remainder iron, its chemical symbol is Fe3C.  Cementite is very hard, but when mixed with soft ferrite layers its averidge hardness is reduced considerably. Slow cooling gives course perlite; soft easy to machine but poor toughness.  Faster cooling gives very fine layers of ferrite and cementite; harder and tougher
Pearlite A mixture of alternate strips of ferrite and cementite in a single grain.  The distance between the plates and their thickness is dependant on the cooling rate of the material;  fast cooling creates thin plates that are close together and slow cooling creates a much coarser structure possessing less toughness.  The name for this structure is derived from its mother of pearl appearance under a microscope.  A fully pearlitic structure occurs at 0.8% Carbon.  Further increases in carbon will create cementite at the grain boundaries, which will start to weaken the steel.
Martensite If steel is cooled rapidly from austenite, the F.C.C structure rapidly changes to B.C.C leaving insufficient time for the carbon to form pearlite.  This results in a distorted structure that has the appearance of fine needles. There is no partial transformation associated with martensite, it either forms or it doesn't.  However, only the parts of a section that cool fast enough will form martensite; in a thick section it will only form to a certain depth, and if the shape is complex  it may only form in small pockets.  The hardness of martensite is solely dependant on carbon content, it is normally very high, unless the carbon content is exceptionally low.

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