Metallurgical Transactions A

, Volume 9, Issue 8, pp 1039–1053

Mechanisms of tempered martensite embrittlement in low alloy steels


  • R. M. Horn
    • Department of Materials Science and Mineral EngineeringUniversity of California
  • Robert O. Ritchie
    • Department of Mechanical EngineeringMassachusetts Institute of Technology
Mechanical Behavior

DOI: 10.1007/BF02652208

Cite this article as:
Horn, R.M. & Ritchie, R.O. MTA (1978) 9: 1039. doi:10.1007/BF02652208


An investigation into the mechanisms of tempered martensite embrittlement (TME), also know as “500°F” or “350°C” or one-step temper embrittlement, has been made in commercial, ultra-high strength 4340 and Si-modified 4340 (300-M) alloy steels, with particular focus given to the role of interlath films of retained austenite. Studies were performed on the variation of i) strength and toughness, and ii) the morphology, volume fraction and thermal and mechanical stability of retained austenite, as a function of tempering temperature, following oil-quenching, isothermal holding, and continuous air cooling from the austenitizing temperature. TME was observed as a decrease in bothKIc and Charpy V-notch impact energy after tempering around 300°C in 4340 and 425°C in 300-M, where the mechanisms of fracture were either interlath cleavage or largely transgranular cleavage. The embrittlement was found to be concurrent with the interlath precipitation of cementite during temperingand the consequent mechanical instability of interlath films of retained austenite during subsequent loading. The role of silicon in 300-M was seen to retard these processes and hence retard TME to higher tempering temperatures than for 4340. The magnitude of the embrittlement was found to be significantly greater in microstructures containing increasing volume fractions of retained austenite. Specifically, in 300-M the decrease inKIc, due to TME, was a 5 MPa√m in oil quenched structures with less than 4 pct austenite, compared to a massive decrease of 70 MPa√m in slowly (air) cooled structures containing 25 pct austenite. A complete mechanism of tempered martensite embrittlement is proposed involving i) precipitation of interlath cementite due to partial thermal decomposition of interlath films of retained austenite, and ii) subsequent deformation-induced transformation on loading of remaining interlath austenite, destabilized by carbon depletion from carbide precipitation. The deterioration in toughness, associated with TME, is therefore ascribed to the embrittling effect of i) interlath cementite precipitates and ii) an interlath layer of mechanically-transformed austenite,i.e., untempered martensite. The presence of residual impurity elements in prior austenite grain boundaries, having segregated there during austenitization, may accentuate this process by providing an alternative weak path for fracture. The relative importance of these effects is discussed.

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© American Society for Metals and The Metallurgical Society of AIME 1978