Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 February 2011
The recent progress made in our understanding of the phenomenology and mechanisms of environmental embrittlement in ordered intermetallics is reviewed by considering two model alloy systems of the L12 and B2 crystal classes (Ni3Al and FeAl). The poor ductility commonly encountered when these alloys are tensile tested in ambient air is due mainly to environmental embrittlement, in the absence of which, both alloys are now known to be quite ductile. Both H2O and H2, at levels found in ordinary ambient air, are found to cause environmental embrittlement, with the former usually more deleterious. In the case of H2O, the micromechanism involves reaction with the intermetallic to form an oxide (or hydroxide) and simultaneous generation of atomic hydrogen which then enters the metal and causes embrittlement. In the case of H2, on the other hand, atomic hydrogen is generated as a result of the dissociation of physisorbed hydrogen molecules on the intermetallic surfaces. Consistent with the proposed embrittlement mechanism, ductility is found to increase with decreasing amounts of H2O (or H2) in the test environment, increasing strain rate, and decreasing (or increasing) temperature. Environmental embrittlement in Ni3Al (and other L12 alloys) occurs predominantly intergranularly, whereas in FeAl (and other B2 alloys) it can also occur transgranularly—presumably because diffusion of hydrogen is fast enough through the bulk in the more open B2 structure but only so along grain boundaries in the L12 structure. Microalloying with B, which segregates strongly to the grain boundaries, can overcome environmental embrittlement in L12 alloys, but not in B2 alloys; in the latter, alloying additions probably have to be added at significantly higher (macroalloy) levels to affect the bulk properties. In neither alloy is environmental embrittlement the sole source of brittleness: depending on the alloy stoichiometry, and grain boundary character, a given grain boundary may be intrinsically weaker (or stronger) than the bulk, thereby influencing overall ductility.
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