Phase-field modelling of microstructure evolution during processing of cold-rolled dual phase steels
Cold-rolled dual-phase steels, which belong to the advanced high strength steels, have gained much interest within the automotive industry. The formation of dual-phase microstructure, which provides an optimal combination of strength and formability for automotive applications, occurs during intercritical annealing of cold-rolled strip. Variations in the chemical composition as well as in the heat treatment parameters influence very strongly the microstructure development and therefore the final mechanical properties of the strip. Thus, the precise control of the microstructure evolution during full processing route is required for the achievement of essential mechanical properties. The current work is focused on a through-process model on a microstructural scale for the production of dual-phase steel from cold-rolled strip, which is based on Phase-Field Method and combines the description of ferrite recrystallisation and all phase transformations occurring during intercritical annealing. This approach will enable the prediction of final microstructure for varying composition and processing conditions, and therefore, can be used for the process development and optimisation.
KeywordsPhase-field modelling Phase transformation Dual-phase steels
The mechanical properties of dual-phase steels are provided by a microstructure which consists of two different phases with different hardness, i.e. hard martensitic islands in a soft ferrite matrix. Thereby, not only phase fractions but also distribution and morphology of both phases are responsible for the mechanical properties [1, 2]. The formation of dual-phase microstructure from cold-rolled strip occurs during intercritical annealing which involves different metallurgical phenomena, like recrystallisation and phase transformations [3, 4]. Each of these processes contributes to the establishment of the final microstructure. Thus, the control of the microstructure evolution during the whole processing of dual-phase steels is therefore the key for the processing of steels with predetermined mechanical properties. Therefore, several detailed experimental studies of DP microstructure evolution have been performed e.g. [5, 6, 7].
Beside of that, the numerical investigation which is an alternative to complex and expensive experiments can be very helpful. Nowadays, computational materials science is a powerful approach for understanding physical mechanisms and their interactions during industrial processing allowing the prediction of microstructure as well as of mechanical properties [8, 9]. It can be applied for the improvement of process parameters and optimisation of chemical composition.
Up to now, different mechanisms along the annealing route of cold-rolled strips in dual-phase processing, as there are recrystallization in cold formed ferrite, austenite formation, grain growth in ferrite and austenite, formation of ferrite and martensite, have been investigated separately. However, the current trend in computational materials science moves towards ICME (Integrative Computational Materials Engineering) where individual approaches on the different scales are combined in order to describe a process chain completely [10, 11]. Such combination of models describing single process steps allows the prediction of final product properties from the knowledge of chemical composition and processing conditions.
At the time, no through-process model for the processing of dual-phase steels, which covers all metallurgical phenomena on a microstructural scale in one integral approach, is available. Setting up such through-process model is expected to lead to significant improvement in the prediction of microstructure development and therefore, to enable robust production of dual-phase steels with predefined mechanical properties. Hereby, the Phase-Field approach represents a powerful method for the calculation of microstructure evolution in multi-phase multicomponent systems which can be applied to the establishment of through-process model. The potential and ability of this approach for the prediction of several phase transformations have been already show in many works [12, 13, 14, 15].
The main focus of this work is the formulation of a through-process model on a microstructural scale for the production of dual-phase steels from cold-rolled strip by means of Phase-Field approach. 2D- and 3D-simulation results of the microstructure evolution during intercritical annealing will be shown and compared to experimental results.
Chemical composition (in wt.-%) of the investigated steel
According to the microprobe analysis, carbon concentration of pearlite is about 0.60 wt.-%. In parallel, Thermo-Calc® calculations were performed taking into account C, Si, Mn and Cr. This confirms as well the eutectic concentration of investigated steel at approximately 0.60 wt.-% of carbon. The C concentration in ferrite is much lower. However, the exact determination of the carbon content in ferrite by means of microprobe analysis is limited due to the very small concentration. No difference was found between the concentrations of Si, Mn and Cr in ferrite and pearlite in the initial structure: the content of the substitutional elements in both phases is equal to the total content in the steel. Thus the initial structure contains 16% of pearlite with 0.60 wt.-% C, 0.24 wt.-% Si, 1.65 wt.-% Mn, and 0.55 wt.-% Cr in a ferritic matrix with the same content of substitutional elements. Knowing the carbon content and phase fraction of pearlite, the carbon concentration in ferrite was calculated to be 0.002 wt.-% using total carbon content and mass balance.
The stored energy distribution, which is also an important characteristic of material, was obtained based on EBSD analysis assuming that the misorientations within deformed grains reflect the distribution of a small angle grain boundary and therefore, the stored energy. The approach to identify the stored energy from misorientation maps has been developed by Zaefferer and can be found at [16, 17]. The average value of the stored energy for the investigated steel was evaluated to be 4.5 J/cm3. Additionally, the EBSD analysis is applied in this work for the determination of ferrite grain size distributions.
Experimental process simulation
Along the intercritical heat treatment samples were quenched at various stages as can be found in Figure2 using a helium atmosphere. Thus, the microstructure at the chosen temperatures was frozen and afterwards studied by means of light optical microscopy. The corresponding average values of the ferrite fraction were obtained by an image analyser of four nital-etched micrographs per sample at magnification 1000x.
Multicomponent multiphase-field approach
The Phase-Field approach is developed for the modelling of the phase transformations in multicomponent systems [18, 19, 20]. For simulation work in this paper the commercial software package MICRESS® is used which allows the calculation of phase fractions during solid-solid transformations in multicomponent steels as well as the description of the corresponding microstructure evolution .
where is the multicomponent diffusion coefficient matrix for phase ι. is calculated online for the given concentration and temperature using the Fortran TQ® interface to Thermo-Calc® and the mobility databases MOB2 . In case of recrystallization modelling the thermodynamic driving force is replaced by stored energy.
There, the important material characteristics, i.e. distribution of alloying elements and stored energy, are taken from the microprobe and EBSD analyses. In the simulation C, Si, Mn and Cr were included, which are the main alloying elements in this DP600 grade. Thus, according to the microprobe results, it is taken that the substitutional elements are homogeneously distributed in the structure whereas the carbon content in pearlite is about 0.60 wt.-% and in ferrite 0.002 wt.-%.
The stored energy of ferritic grains which is the driving force for the recrystallisation is set between 3 and 7 J/cm3, so that the average value corresponds to the EBSD results. As pearlite is a much harder phase compared to ferrite, the stored energy of pearlite is set to zero and thus, recrystallisation occurs only in ferrite and is finalised before austenite forms.
Recrystallisation is followed by the nucleation and growth of new grains. Due to the high heating rate in industrial annealing lines, recovery has been neglected in this study. Additionally to the stored energy, which is the driving force for this process, the main input parameters for the simulation of recrystallisation are nucleation density and grain boundary mobility. These parameters determine the rate and characteristics of the whole process.
To approximate the real transformation behaviour, 2D-simulation of recrystallisation is performed following a local maximum stored energy criterion assuming continuous nucleation. The reason for this is the fact that in the 2D-simulations each grain emerging on the simulated surface should be assumed to be a newly-generated. Thus, for the 2D-modelling it is important during the whole process to introduce new grains which reflect and compensate growth of grains from the underlying level in the considered 2D-section. The total number of nuclei appearing during the simulation is set to 250 based on the experimental grain size distribution after recrystallisation. This approach is similar to that used by  combining nucleation scenario assumptions with mobility adjustment to replicate the experimental data.
The grain boundary mobility is typically given by the Arrhenius equation describing its temperature dependence. The activation energy for α/α grain boundary mobility is fixed to 140 kJ/mol as this is the most widely used value in the literature . The pre-exponential factor is set to 3.2 × 10-6 m4/(Js) based on the comparison of the simulated growth of the single grains by the variation of the pre-exponential factor with the experimental grain sizes. As the simulation focuses on micro scale, all grain boundaries are assumed to be high angle grain boundaries and will be kinetically treated identically.
The modelling of phase transformation (austenite formation from ferrite pearlite and ferrite formation from austenite) will be performed separately and the results will be combined in one through process simulation. For the simulation of pearlite dissolution a simplified approach is used. Pearlite in this approach is considered as an effective pseudo-phase with mixed properties of ferrite and cementite. The thermodynamic driving force for dissolution is calculated from overheating obtained by a linearization of the phase diagram. The interactions of pearlite with other phases are defined by assumed slopes which restrict the two phase regions . Based on the metallographic observations, nucleation of austenite during heating is assumed to take place only within pearlitic grains. The number of austenite nuclei is set to 100 so that in the large pearlitic grains several austenite nuclei could form, similar to the metallographic finding.
The thermodynamic driving force for the modelling of ferrite-to-austenite and austenite-to-ferrite transformations is obtained by the direct coupling to the thermodynamic database via the Gibbs energy minimisation software Thermo-Calc®. The modelling of these phase transformations are performed taking into account redistribution of substitutional alloying according to LENP (Local Equilibrium Non Partitioning) conditions using special model for solute redistribution .
The diffusion parameters are taken from the kinetic database MOB2. The mobility for the ferrite/austenite and pearlte/austenite grain boundaries are defined by an activation energy, of 140 kJ/mol and a pre-exponential factor of 1.5 × 10-6 m4/(Js). The other input parameters which have to be mentioned here are interfacial energy the interfacial energy σ * ij , of 0.4 Jm-2 for ferrite/austenite interface, 0.9 Jm-2 for austenite/pearlite interface, 0.7 Jm-2 for austenite/austenite interface , the grid spacing Δx, which is taken to be 0.2 μm, and the interface thickness η, which in this work equals to 1 μm.
The grain size distribution of the created volume domain obtained from the XY-sections reflects an elongation of the real microstructure due to cold-rolling. Moreover, the ferrite grain size distribution of 3D-structure obtained from 2D-cuts is in fair correlation with the experimental data. The average grain size of created 3D-structure equals to 11.5 μm and diverges only by 2–3 μm from the experimentally-obtained grain size value 8.6 μm.
As in the case of 2D-structure, the content of alloying elements is taken according to the microprobe results and the stored energy of ferritic grains in the created 3D-structure is set corresponding to the EBSD results. Most simulation parameters such as behaviour of substitutional alloying elements, mobility, interfacial energy and diffusion parameters are taken from 2D-approach. However, the nucleation parameters are adjusted due to the fact that continuous nucleation proposed for 2D-simulations assumes not only nucleation of new grains but also the growing up of grains from neighbour level. This is therefore not suitable for 3D-simulations. Thus, it was established that the site saturation nucleation is much more applicable for the 3D-modelling of recrystallisation due to the fact that according to the experimental data, recrystallisation under the investigated heating parameters takes only 20–30 s. In order to reflect the experimentally-obtained average grain diameter after recrystallisation, which is determined by the nucleation density, it is supposed that 50 nuclei form at 660°C. The grain junctions and interfaces are addressed as probable nucleation sites. Considering austenite formation, as in the case of 2D-simulation it is assumed that nucleation takes place only in pearlite. The number of nuclei is fixed to 25 so that in each pearlitic grain several austenite nuclei could form.
Results and discussion
In the following the results of the 2D- and 3D-modelling for the microstructure evolution during intercritical annealing with the process parameters according to Figure2 will be presented.
Mecozzi et al. have shown that the predicted ferrite grain size distribution depends in detail on the assumed nucleation behaviour . Further, it is suggested that the apparent mobility in 2D is lower than in 3D to match a reference kinetics for a given nucleation scenario. In the present simulation 2D and 3D mobilities are the same, while in 2D continuous nucleation has been assumed and in 3D all nuclei form at the same temperature (site saturation). The apparent agreement of 2D and 3D mobilities might be accepted to be a compensation effect of 2D vs. 3D growth geometries and increased nucleation spread in 2D as compared to 3D simulations.
The visual comparison of the phase distributions and the grain sizes at 710°C shows that 2D-results are quite similar with real micrograph. Both, metallographic and simulation results show that the recrystallisation has been completed. At corresponding temperature the deformed elongated ferritic grains are substituted by the round recrystallized grains. Nvertheless, there is still room for improvement. One aspect that is not considered in the simulations is banding due to segregation effects that is quite obvious from the micrograph shown in Figure1.
At 800°C, the calculated austenitic fraction is about 41%, which agrees with the experimentally observed 42%. The grain distributions in the simulated structure and in the micrograph are similar. An elongated arrangement of phases can be observed in both as a result of the stretched arrangement of pearlite in the initial structure. Due to the fact that the ferrite to austenite phase transformation is controlled by carbon diffusion, a redistribution of carbon during the progress of phase transformation occurs. At this temperature, the austenite contains about 0.24 wt.-% carbon.
The simulated structure at 650°C with about 77% of ferrite and 23% of austenite also corresponds well to the real dual-phase microstructure. The experimental results with 78% of ferrite and 22% of martensite confirm the simulation. Although the phase arrangement and distribution of ferritic grains in both structures are very similar, the network of austenitic/martensitic grains in the simulated structure seems to be somewhat coarser. This could be a consequence of the fact that the final dual-phase microstructure still reflects the initial distribution of pearlite. Though the performed simulation based on the real micrograph, very small pearlitic grains (smaller than 3 grid element) have not been reproduced in the starting structure. The absence of these grains may lead to the somewhat coarser martensite network in the final simulation structure.
The carbon distribution map shows the enrichment of carbon fraction in the remaining austenite with decreasing austenite fraction. The average carbon concentration in the austenite at 650°C reached a value of about 0.41%.
From the information of the carbon content in austenite, the M s -temperature at each point of structure can be calculated. Thus, from the structure simulated by means of Phase-Field Method, ferrite-martensite structure can be obtained by the application of Koistinen-Marburger  or an alternative approach. This will enable coupling to the already available models for the modelling of mechanical properties, such as for example RVE-FE Method for the prediction of flow behaviour [29, 30, 31].
2D- and 3D-simulations of microstructure evolution during processing of dual-phase steels from cold-rolled strips have be realized by means of Phase-Field Modelling approach. It allows to describe all metallurgical phenomena occurring on a microstructural scale during intercritical annealing, i.e. recrystallisation, austenite formation, ferrite formation as a function of chemical composition, starting microstructure and process parameters. The accurate definition of input model parameters yields both 2D- and 3D-approaches to simulate the microstructure evolution successfully. The comparison of 2D- and 3D-simulated results with experimental data demonstrates an overall agreement of the predicted evolution of phase fraction and grain size distribution.
Moreover, evolution of carbon distribution, especially the carbon distribution in the final structure, is an important output of Phase-Field simulations. Carbon dissolved in martensite determines its hardness, and therefore, mechanical properties of the investigated steel. This can be used for the following prediction of the microstructure evolution. It will allow determining martensite start temperature in case of the subsequent quenching as well as further modelling of flow behaviour of material.
The advantage of 2D-simulation compared to the 3D-approch is the achievement of fast results and directly comparison with experimental data enabling rapid revelation of the influencing parameters. Therefore it can be utilised for the optimisation of process parameters to achieve the essential microstructure. In contrast, the 3D-simulations are much more time-consuming and need high computational capacity but can be applied easily for the following coupling with the models for the prediction of mechanical properties.
JR did the experiments, the calculations and prepared the first version of article text. UP discussed and analysed the experimental and simulation results, contributed during text and figure preparation and corrected the article. WB analysed and discussed the final results and conclusions and the article text. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
This research was carried out under project number MC5.06257 in the framework of the Research Programme of the Materials innovation institute M2i (http://www.M2i.nl). The authors acknowledge the financial support of M2i as well as the fruitful discussion with Henk Vegter, Piet Kock (both now at Tata Steel Europe) and Jilt Sietsma.(Delft University of Technology).
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