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Research Article

Direct Partial Remelting of XW-42 Steel in Semi-Solid Zone

A. Alfan, M.Z. Omar, J. Syarif and Z. Sajuri
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Microstructure that consists of spheroid grains in liquid matrix is desirable for semi-solid metal forming. In this study, a direct partial remelting from as annealed condition was used to examine microstructural evolution of XW-42 steel prior to thixoforming process. It was found out that M7C3 carbides dissolve inside the semi solid zone (between 1250-1270°C) while M23C6 carbides dissolve completely before entering semi-solid zone. The dissolution of these grain boundary carbides during partial remelting helps the grain spheroidisation of the XW-42 steel samples. Partial remelting at 1300 and 1340°C resulted in the formation of relatively spherical grains with liquid percent around 17%. The results indicate the suitability of these steel as a potential material for thixoforming through direct partial remelting route.

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A. Alfan, M.Z. Omar, J. Syarif and Z. Sajuri, 2010. Direct Partial Remelting of XW-42 Steel in Semi-Solid Zone. Journal of Applied Sciences, 10: 1255-1262.

DOI: 10.3923/jas.2010.1255.1262

Received: February 01, 2010; Accepted: April 28, 2010; Published: June 10, 2010


Semi solid forming (also called thixoforming) is a new technology in which the metal is processed taking advantage of its thixotropic properties. In a thixotropic condition, an alloy can experienced a fall in viscosity if it is sheared but it will thicken again if it is allowed to stand. The first experiment to demonstrate this thixotropic behavior was conducted by Flemings and his co-workers in the early 1970s (Kirkwood, 1994). Since then, efforts have been made to put the new method at industrial level. The efforts were partially succeeded with utilization of thixoforming process to manufacture components made of low melting point alloys such as aluminium and magnesium alloys. One example of this component is space frame node for an Audi car structure made from MHD cast billets of AlMg5Si2Mn aluminium alloy (Hirt et al., 2009). Nevertheless, further development of Al and Mg alloys are still ongoing (Bayoumi et al., 2009; Chen et al., 2009).

On the other hand, development of high melting point material for thixoforming process hasn`t yet reached its goal (i.e., commercialization of steel thixoforming). However, efforts to realize the goal are steadily being pushed due to the benefits of steel thixoforming. Early studies mentioned that the benefits are low forging force compared to conventional forging process, possibility of forming components with complex and intricate shapes, reduction of steps in forming process, less air entrapment and also less shrinkage porosity compared to conventionally casting process (Omar et al., 2004a). Several steels have been investigated as potential thixoforming material candidates. The result seems promising for some steels such as X210CrW12 (Bramann et al., 2004; Seidl and Kopp, 2004; Uhlenhaut et al. 2006), AISI M2 tool steel (Omar et al., 2004b), 100Cr6 bearing steel (Bulte and Bleck., 2004; Seidl and Kopp, 2004) and high chromium cast iron (HCCI) (Huang et al., 2006). Other research on thixoforming of steels are focused on tools (Behrens et al., 2004; Kopp et al., 2004) and also supporting facilities for the process (Kuthe et al., 2004; Pierret et al., 2008).

Regarding these developments, however, research on thixoforming materials is still much needed to satisfy material selection process in order to bring steel thixoforming toward larger scale industrial application. XW-42 cold work tool steel is being studied in this research as a potential starting material for thixoforming process. The scope of this present study covers the microstructural evolution of XW-42 steel when the steel is directly heated to semi-solid zone from as annealed condition (Direct Partial Remelting)


Material: The material used in this work is an XW-42 cold work tool steel supplied in as-annealed condition (heated to 850°C, then cooled in the furnace at 10°C h-1 to 650°C, after that cooled freely in air). Chemical composition for the material was acquired using Foundry-Master Spark Spectrometer that is based on Optical Emission Spectroscopy (OES) method.

JMatPro simulation: JMatPro or Java-based Material Properties is software that was developed to augment the thermodynamic calculation by incorporating various theoretical material models and properties database that allow a quantitative calculation for the requisite materials property to be made within a larger software structure (Saunders et al., 2003). A modified Scheil-Guliver model is employed by the software to perform the simulation. By using this model, liquid fraction profile as well as phase stability diagram can be created.

DTA measurement: DTA measurement was carried out to estimate solidus and liquidus temperatures as well as liquid fraction profile within the semi-solid zone and carbide stability zone of studied material. The measurement was performed using Netzsch Simultaneous Thermal Analysis (STA) 409°C equipment. The sample was cut into small pieces with total weight of 50-100 mg with alumina as reference material. Heating rate of 5°C min-1 was employed for the test. The solidus and liquidus temperatures as well as liquid fraction profile were constructed using Proteus software (Puttgen and Bleck, 2004).

Direct partial remelting experiment: The direct partial remelting experiment was performed using vertical, high temperature carbolite furnace. The material was cut into coupons of 5x10x12 mm. For each test, a coupon was hung inside the furnace by using chromel wire. To ensure that coupon was heated into designated temperature, a K-type thermocouple was placed nearby the coupon without making any direct contact with the coupons to prevent damages to the thermocouple. The tests were repeated for various selected temperatures (based on liquid fraction profiles from DTA measurement) with fixed holding time of 2 min and subsequently quench into brine solution to freeze the structures. The heating was carried out in an argon atmosphere to reduce oxidation. Heating rate of the furnace was found to be around 20°C min-1.

Metallography and image analysis: Coupons from direct partial remelting experiments were ground and polished to get clean and mirror-like surface. Subsequently, the coupons were etched using Villela reagent (1 g picric acid, 5 mL hydrochloric acid and 95 mL ethyl alcohol) to reveal their microstructures. Microstructures observation and analysis were conducted by using BX-51 Olympus optical microscope as well as Hitachi S3400N scanning electron

microscope (SEM), equipped with Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDX) to analyze chemical composition of the selected area/spots. EDX identifies chemical composition of the selected area/spots by recognizing x-ray in which its energy amount is unique for every element (Goldstein et al., 1981).


Starting material: Table 1 shows chemical analysis result for XW-42 steel. Standard specification (Steiner and American Society for Metals, 1990) confirmed that chemical analysis result from the alloy fall within the required standard. Optical micrographs of as received sample are shown in Fig. 1a and b. It shows arrays of large carbides with smaller carbides distributed homogeneously. This structure is known to be found in an annealed cold work tool steel (Roberts et al., 1971) thus confirms that soft annealing treatment has been done as described by the material supplier. According to Roberts et al. (1971), the carbides in XW-42 steel (designated as D2 by AISI) are mostly from M7C3 type carbide which is confirmed by JMatPro simulation (Fig. 2). Beside the predominant M7C3 type carbide, JMatPro simulation also estimates the existence of MC and M23C6 types of carbide in this steel. However the amount of both types of carbides after cooling to room temperature is negligible compare to M7C3 carbides.

SEM observation using back scattered mode was used to analyze the carbides of the starting material in detail (Fig. 1c). It was found that both large carbides and small carbides are darkish in appearances, indicating their similarity in major constituent elements. EDX analysis has been performed to analyze the type of carbides based on their chemical composition (Table 2). It is found that the darkish carbides are rich in chromium and iron with atomic proportion between carbon and other metallic elements (Fe, Cr, Mo and V) reaches 3:7 ratio. Hence the darkish carbides analyzed thus far (Table 2) are most likely an M7C3-type carbide. M7C3 and M23C6 carbides cannot being distinguished based on back scattered imaging mode because both are Cr-rich type carbides (Laigo et al., 2008).

Table 1: Chemical composition of XW-42 Steel (wt. %)

Table 2: EDX analysis results of the darkish carbides

Fig. 1: Micrographs of As-Received XW-42 Steel from (a, b) Optical Microscope and (c) SEM

Fig. 2: Phase equilibrium diagram of XW-42 steel obtained from JMatPro simulation

Note that phases that are rich in elements with high atomic numbers such as W and Ta (to name a few) will appear bright in Fe matrix, while those that are rich in elements with low atomic numbers, such as Cr and V, will appear greyish or darkish (Goldstein et al., 1981). Furthermore, as will be later explained, the carbide of importance in this study will be the M7C3-type carbide, as it has given a huge influenced to the grain boundary liquation when heated into the semi-solid zones.

Estimation of semi-solid temperature interval: Liquid Fraction Profile (LFP) of XW-42 steel from DTA measurement and also from JMatPro simulation is shown in Fig. 3. The solidus line for this alloy is estimated at 1200-1220°C while the liquidus temperature is at 1400°C.

Fig. 3: Liquid fraction profile of XW-42 steel obtained from DTA and JMatPro simulation

Plateau shape is found on both curves but at different temperature and liquid fraction ranges. For LFP created from DTA measurement, the plateau shape is found at 1300-1343°C that corresponds to liquid percent around 40%. Whereas for LFP from JMatPro, the plateau shape is found rather earlier at 1250-1260°C that corresponds to liquid percent around 15%. The plateau shape becomes an advantage in semi solid metal forming due to its low fluctuation in liquid fraction at given temperature range, thus makes the forming process easier. Previous work discovered that such plateau shape is caused by dissolution of certain carbide(s) inside semi-solid zone (Puttgen and Bleck, 2004; Omar et al., 2009; Meuser and Bleck, 2001). By using the phase equilibrium diagram in Fig. 2 and also explanation about types of carbides in as received sample above, it is strongly believed that the carbides that dissolved at this plateau region are M7C3 carbides.

Temperatures for partial re-melting experiment were selected based on the liquid fraction profile. The experiment were performed at sub solidus (1190°C) and at semi-solid zone (1220, 1250, 1270, 1300 and 1340°C) The selected temperatures are up to 50% liquid percent that was said to be the upper limit of liquid percent for thixoforming process (Omar et al., 2004a). Above this limit, some alloys exhibits fall in viscosity value which could be detrimental to its thixotropic behaviour (Kirkwood, 1994).

Microstructures in sub-solidus and semi-solid zone: Microstructures of XW-42 Steel at 1190°C and 1220°C are shown in Fig. 4 a-c. By comparing Fig. 1c and 4c, it could be seen that at 1190°C some of the darkish carbides have already dissolved. It was believed that the dissolved carbides are all M23C6 carbides along with some M7C3 carbides. Thus, the remaining darkish carbide could be positively confirmed as M7C3 carbides due to its high dissolution temperature. EDX examination results also support the claim by obtaining the similar carbide chemical composition as in Table 2. Other than carbides, equiaxed austenite grains are also observed, especially at the SEM micrograph (Fig. 4c). However, it is only partly visible due to etchant attacking preference effect.

At 1250°C (Fig. 5 a) the M7C3 carbides start to dissolve more rapidly and the equiaxed austenite grains in background are now more visible. Also at this temperature, liquid phase should be appearing at around 10% volume fraction according to DTA profile at Fig. 3. However, due its low quantity of liquid phase (<25% volume fraction), partial remelting experiment failed to reveal the presence of liquid phase other than thin film of dark phase at the grain boundaries (Fig. 5a). This is attributed to insufficient cooling rates during quenching that enables the liquid phase at the vicinity of grains to solidify epitaxially (Tzimas and Zavaliangos, 2000a).

An increase in partial remelting temperature to 1270°C will dissolve all remaining M7C3 carbides. Furthermore, dark eutectics formed from quenched liquid phase start to appear at this temperature, indicating the much reduced epitaxial effect due to significant increase in liquid phase (up to 17% according to Fig. 3). Calculation on the dark eutectics phase (LFP from image analysis) observed at Fig. 7 shows that its average volume fraction reaches 12%. However, the dark eutectics seem to be grouped along rolling direction and not dispersed around the grains.

Further heating to 1300 and 1340°C (Fig. 6a, b) increases the dark eutectics volume fractions to around 17% due to increase in liquid phase up to 40% according LFP in Fig. 3. The increase of dark eutectics volume fraction, which represents the increase of liquid phase, is thought to give a significant surface tension that affect grain size and spheroidity level. The grain spheroidity level is calculated by using shape factor equation (Bergsma et al., 1997):

Fig. 7: Relation between liquid fraction profile, average grain diameter and shape factor of XW-42 steel at semi-solid zone


where, F is the shape factor, U is the grain circumference and A is the grain area. In the case of F =1, the grains are fully spherical, while for more complex shape, the shape factor is >1.

Figure 7 shows the effect of partial remelting temperature at 1270, 1300 and 1340°C to the average grain sizes and shape factor of the austenite grains. The average grain diameters at these temperatures are found to be around 40-60 μm. It is found that increase in partial remelting temperature will reduce the grain size due to melting at the sharp asperities of the equiaxed grains that is preceded by liquid penetration into the grain boundaries. Then the melting is followed by solidification in regions of negative curvature due to diffusion (Omar et al., 2009). Hence, the reduction of the grain size is resulted in the decline of shape factor value, which means better grain spheroidity level.

Fig. 8: Grain agglomeration at 1340°C that leads to grain boundary elimination. Small unattached isolated grains will be slowly liquidated due to Otswald Ripening

However, it also can be proven that for other alloys (such as AISI M2), grain growth can overcome the reduction process and will result in bigger grain at higher partial remelting temperatures without sacrificing its spheroidity (Omar et al., 2009).

Grain agglomeration occurs for some grains at semi-solid zone as depicted at Fig. 8. Agglomerates could have a beneficial effect for thixoforming process by creating solid skeleton structure that will support the alloy in high liquid content condition (Tzimas and Zavaliangos, 2000b). Previous works show that the agglomerate consists of grains connected with low angle grain boundary (i.e., with misorientation less than 10°) (Liu et al., 2005; Arnberg et al., 1999). Subsequent process of grain rotation and/or grain boundary migration minimizes the misorientation and then eliminates the grain boundary line. On the other hand, isolated unattached grains will be liquidated and become smaller due to Otswald ripening process (Tzimas and Zavaliangos, 2000b).

In order to examine the suitability of an alloy for thixoforming based on its microstructure prior to forming process, specific criterions for average grain size and shape factor is used. Uggowitzer et al. (2000) specified that the average grain size of an alloy must not exceed 100 μm, while its shape factor must be below 2 in order to have good mould filling behavior (Bünck et al., 2009). By using this criterions, it is apparent that the average grain sizes and shape factor for XW-42 steel at 1270, 1300 and 1340°C are suitable for thixoforming process because they are in the range of 50-60 μm and 1.2-1.4, respectively (which is well below the limit value of grain size and shape factor at 100 μm and 2, respectively). However, unbalanced liquid phase distribution found at 1270°C is thought to be detrimental for thixoforming process owing to its lack of wetting effect during forming process. Hence, higher temperature (such as at 1300 and 1340°C) is more recommended for forming process.


The microstructural evolution of XW-42 steel has been examined using direct partial remelting experiment. The as-received material shows arrays of large carbides with smaller carbides distributed homogeneously. The carbides were identified as M7C3 and M23C6 carbides. Further heating to sub solidus zone at 1190°C reveals the dissolution of M23C6 carbides while the M7C3 carbides are still observed after entering semi solid zone and finally dissolve between 1250-1270°C. Epitaxial effect during quenching reduces significantly the volume fraction of dark eutectics that represents the liquid phase. Subsequent calculation after partial remelting shows that the liquid fraction at 1250°C is 12% and increase to 17% at 1300-1340°C. Equiaxed grains found at 1250°C have transformed into more spherical grains at higher partial remelting temperatures (i.e., 1270, 1300 and finally 1340°C). Based on criterions for average grain size and shape factor and also acknowledging the distribution of the liquid phase around grains, it could be said that structures at 1300 and 1340°C are thought to be suitable for thixoforming process.


The authors would like to thank to Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (a.k.a. National University of Malaysia) and Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) Malaysia for sponsoring this work.

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