Helium is formed in metals as a secondary product of fission/fusion energy technology. Even though helium is chemically inert and essentially insoluble in metals, under specific exposure conditions it is known to cause them to lose their ductility. At high temperatures, helium atoms produced from the transmutation of 10B or from a two-step process with 58Ni in amounts as low as a few parts per million migrate to grain boundaries to cause inter-granular failure. Ion implantation of helium may cause a similar effect. More recently it has been found that helium produced from tritium decay at or slightly above room temperature also markedly degrades the mechanical properties of metals. In order to design alloys of the future it is necessary to understand the mechanisms responsible for this helium embrittlement.
Early experiments found that helium is strongly trapped at radiation-produced defects in metals. Atomistic calculations using pair potential interactions verified these findings. It was initially thought that the helium embrittlement in metals was due to the trapping and subsequent bubble formation at radiation-induced defects. It has been shown, however, that helium may be trapped in metals even in the absence of radiation damage. Thomas et al. found that 3He generated at low temperatures from tritium decay remained trapped in nickel upon heating to 500°C. In both this experimentand a subsequentone in gold the helium was introduced without the production of radiation damage. In this second experiment Thomas used transmission electron microscopy to see in the gold small (10Å) bubbles that had been implanted with low-energy (sub-damage threshold) helium.