Superalloys, or high-performance alloys, are non-ferrous alloys that exhibit outstanding strength and surface stability at high temperatures. Their ability to operate safely at a high fraction of their melting point (up to 85% of their melting points (Tm) expressed in degrees Kelvin, 0.85) is their key characteristics. Superalloys are generally used at temperatures above 540 °C (1000 °F), as at these temperatures ordinary steel and titanium alloys are losing their strengths, also corrosion is common in steels at this temperature. At high temperatures, superalloys retain mechanical strength, resistance to thermal creep deformation, surface stability, and resistance to corrosion or oxidation. Some nickel-based superalloys can withstand temperatures beyond 1200°C, depending on the composition of the alloy. Superalloys are often cast as a single crystal, while grain boundaries may provide strength, they decrease creep resistance.
They were initially developed for use in aircraft piston engine turbosuperchargers. Today, the most common application is in aircraft turbine components, which must withstand exposure to severely oxidizing environments and high temperatures for reasonable time periods. Current applications include:
- Aircraft gas turbines
- Steam turbine power plants
- Medical applications
- Space vehicles and rocket engines
- Heat-treating equipment
- Nuclear power plants
Nickel is the base element for superalloys, which are are a group of nickel, iron–nickel and cobalt alloys used in jet engines. These metals have excellent resistance to thermal creep deformation and retain their stiffness, strength, toughness and dimensional stability at temperatures much higher than the other aerospace structural materials.
Types of Superalloys
There are three main categories that are jointly called superalloys as mentioned below. they posses high level of temperature insensitivity or stability and are widely used as base materials for high temperature applications.
- Nickel-based Superalloys. Nickel-based superalloys currently constitute over 50% of the weight of advanced aircraft engines. Nickel-base superalloys include solid-solution-strengthened alloys and age-hardenable alloys. Age-hardenable alloys consist of an austenitic (fcc) matrix dispersed with coherent precipitation of an Ni3(Al,Ti) intermetallic with an fcc structure. Ni-based superalloys are alloys with nickel as the primary alloying element are preferred as blade material in the previously discussed applications, rather than Co- or Fe-based superalloys. What is significant for Ni-based superalloys is their high strength, creep and corrosion resistance at high temperatures. It is common to cast turbine blades in directionally solidified form or single-crystal form. Single-crystal blades are mainly used in the first row in the turbine stage.
- Iron – Nickel-based Superalloys. Fe-based superalloys have showed creep and oxidation resistance similar to that of Ni-based superalloys, while being far less expensive to produce. The most important class of this group are those alloys that are strengthened by an intermetallic compound precipitation in an FCC matrix.
- Cobalt-based Superalloys. This class of alloys is relatively new. In 2006, Sato et al. discovered a new phase in the Co–Al–W system. Unlike other superalloys, cobalt-base alloys are characterized by a solid-solution-strengthened austenitic (fcc) matrix in which a small quantity of carbide is distributed. While not used commercially to the extent of Ni-based superalloys, alloying elements found in research Co-based alloys are C, Cr, W, Ni, Ti, Al, Ir, and Ta. They possess better weldability and thermal fatigue resistance as compared to nickel based alloy. Moreover, they have excellent corrosion resistance at high temperatures (980-1100 °C) because of their higher chromium contents.
These alloys are generally used at temperature above 450°C, as at these temperatures ordinary steel and titanium alloys are losing their strengths, also corrosion is common in steels at this temperature.
Creep, known also as cold flow, is the permanent deformation that increases with time under constant load or stress. It results due to long time exposure to large external mechanical stress with in limit of yielding and is more severe in material that are subjected to heat for long time. The rate of deformation is a function of the material’s properties, exposure time, exposure temperature and the applied structural load. Creep is a very important phenomenon if we are using materials at high temperature. Creep is very important in power industry and it is of the highest importance in designing of jet engines. For many relatively short-life creep situations (e.g. turbine blades in military aircraft), time to rupture is the dominant design consideration. Of course, for its determination, creep tests must be conducted to the point of failure; these are termed creep rupture tests.
Creep resistance of materials can be influenced by many factors such as diffusivity, precipitate and grain size. In general, there are three general ways to prevent creep in metal. One way is to use higher melting point metals, the second way is to use materials with greater grain size and the third way is to use alloying. Body-centered cubic (BCC) metals are less creep resistant in high temperatures. Therefore, superalloys (typically face-centered cubic austenitic alloys) based on Co, Ni, and Fe are capable of being engineered to be highly resistant to creep, and have thus arisen as an ideal material in high-temperature environments.
Inconel 718 – Nickel-based Superalloy
In general, Inconel is a registered trademark of Special Metals for a family of austenitic nickel-chromium-based superalloys. Inconel 718 is a nickel-based superalloy that possesses high strength properties and resistance to elevated temperatures. It also demonstrates remarkable protection against corrosion and oxidation. Inconel’s high temperature strength is developed by solid solution strengthening or precipitation hardening, depending on the alloy. Inconel 718 is composed of 55% nickel, 21% chromium, 6% iron, and small amounts of manganese, carbon, and copper.
Common uses of superalloys are in the aerospace and some other high-technology industries. With the combination of corrosion resistance and material strength in the face of extreme heat, this kind of superalloy works well in the nuclear industry. Some nuclear plants use nickel-based superalloys for the reactor core, control rod, and similar parts. In nuclear industry, especially low-cobalt superalloys (due to possible activation of cobalt-59) are used. Some of structural parts of nuclear fuel assemblies, such as top and bottom nozzle, may be produced from superalloys such as Inconel. Spacing grids are usually made of a corrosion-resistant material with low absorption cross section for thermal neutrons, usually zirconium alloy (~ 0.18 × 10–24 cm2). First and last spacing grid may be also made of low-cobalt Inconel, which is a superalloy well suited for service in extreme environments subjected to pressure and heat.
One of the most serious metallurgical problems and one that is a major concern in the nuclear industry is stress-corrosion cracking (SCC). Stress-corrosion cracking results from the combined action of an applied tensile stress and a corrosive environment, both influences are necessary. SCC is a type of intergranular attack corrosion that occurs at the grain boundaries under tensile stress. Low alloy steels are less susceptible than high alloy steels, but they are subject to SCC in water containing chloride ions. Nickel-based alloys, however, are not effected by chloride or hydroxide ions. An example of a nickel-based alloy that is resistant to stress-corrosion cracking is Inconel.
Properties of Superalloy – Inconel 718
Material properties are intensive properties, that means they are independent of the amount of mass and may vary from place to place within the system at any moment. The basis of materials science involves studying the structure of materials, and relating them to their properties (mechanical, electrical etc.). Once a materials scientist knows about this structure-property correlation, they can then go on to study the relative performance of a material in a given application. The major determinants of the structure of a material and thus of its properties are its constituent chemical elements and the way in which it has been processed into its final form.
Mechanical Properties of Superalloy – Inconel 718
Materials are frequently chosen for various applications because they have desirable combinations of mechanical characteristics. For structural applications, material properties are crucial and engineers must take them into account.
Strength of Superalloy – Inconel 718
In mechanics of materials, the strength of a material is its ability to withstand an applied load without failure or plastic deformation. Strength of materials basically considers the relationship between the external loads applied to a material and the resulting deformation or change in material dimensions. Strength of a material is its ability to withstand this applied load without failure or plastic deformation.
Ultimate Tensile Strength
Ultimate tensile strength of superalloy – Inconel 718 depends on heat treatment process, but it is about 1200 MPa.
The ultimate tensile strength is the maximum on the engineering stress-strain curve. This corresponds to the maximum stress that can be sustained by a structure in tension. Ultimate tensile strength is often shortened to “tensile strength” or even to “the ultimate.” If this stress is applied and maintained, fracture will result. Often, this value is significantly more than the yield stress (as much as 50 to 60 percent more than the yield for some types of metals). When a ductile material reaches its ultimate strength, it experiences necking where the cross-sectional area reduces locally. The stress-strain curve contains no higher stress than the ultimate strength. Even though deformations can continue to increase, the stress usually decreases after the ultimate strength has been achieved. It is an intensive property; therefore its value does not depend on the size of the test specimen. However, it is dependent on other factors, such as the preparation of the specimen, the presence or otherwise of surface defects, and the temperature of the test environment and material. Ultimate tensile strengths vary from 50 MPa for an aluminum to as high as 3000 MPa for very high-strength steels.
Yield strength of superalloy – Inconel 718 depends on heat treatment process, but it is about 1030 MPa.
The yield point is the point on a stress-strain curve that indicates the limit of elastic behavior and the beginning plastic behavior. Yield strength or yield stress is the material property defined as the stress at which a material begins to deform plastically whereas yield point is the point where nonlinear (elastic + plastic) deformation begins. Prior to the yield point, the material will deform elastically and will return to its original shape when the applied stress is removed. Once the yield point is passed, some fraction of the deformation will be permanent and non-reversible. Some steels and other materials exhibit a behaviour termed a yield point phenomenon. Yield strengths vary from 35 MPa for a low-strength aluminum to greater than 1400 MPa for very high-strength steels.
Young’s Modulus of Elasticity
Young’s modulus of elasticity of superalloy – Inconel 718 is 200 GPa.
The Young’s modulus of elasticity is the elastic modulus for tensile and compressive stress in the linear elasticity regime of a uniaxial deformation and is usually assessed by tensile tests. Up to a limiting stress, a body will be able to recover its dimensions on removal of the load. The applied stresses cause the atoms in a crystal to move from their equilibrium position. All the atoms are displaced the same amount and still maintain their relative geometry. When the stresses are removed, all the atoms return to their original positions and no permanent deformation occurs. According to the Hooke’s law, the stress is proportional to the strain (in the elastic region), and the slope is Young’s modulus. Young’s modulus is equal to the longitudinal stress divided by the strain.
Hardness of Superalloy – Inconel 718
Brinell hardness of superalloy – Inconel 718 depends on heat treatment process, but it is approximately 330 MPa.
In materials science, hardness is the ability to withstand surface indentation (localized plastic deformation) and scratching. Hardness is probably the most poorly defined material property because it may indicate resistance to scratching, resistance to abrasion, resistance to indentation or even resistance to shaping or localized plastic deformation. Hardness is important from an engineering standpoint because resistance to wear by either friction or erosion by steam, oil, and water generally increases with hardness.
Brinell hardness test is one of indentation hardness tests, that has been developed for hardness testing. In Brinell tests, a hard, spherical indenter is forced under a specific load into the surface of the metal to be tested. The typical test uses a 10 mm (0.39 in) diameter hardened steel ball as an indenter with a 3,000 kgf (29.42 kN; 6,614 lbf) force. The load is maintained constant for a specified time (between 10 and 30 s). For softer materials, a smaller force is used; for harder materials, a tungsten carbide ball is substituted for the steel ball.
The test provides numerical results to quantify the hardness of a material, which is expressed by the Brinell hardness number – HB. The Brinell hardness number is designated by the most commonly used test standards (ASTM E10-14 and ISO 6506–1:2005) as HBW (H from hardness, B from brinell and W from the material of the indenter, tungsten (wolfram) carbide). In former standards HB or HBS were used to refer to measurements made with steel indenters.
The Brinell hardness number (HB) is the load divided by the surface area of the indentation. The diameter of the impression is measured with a microscope with a superimposed scale. The Brinell hardness number is computed from the equation:
There are a variety of test methods in common use (e.g. Brinell, Knoop, Vickers and Rockwell). There are tables that are available correlating the hardness numbers from the different test methods where correlation is applicable. In all scales, a high hardness number represents a hard metal.
Thermal Properties of Superalloy – Inconel 718
Thermal properties of materials refer to the response of materials to changes in their temperature and to the application of heat. As a solid absorbs energy in the form of heat, its temperature rises and its dimensions increase. But different materials react to the application of heat differently.
Melting Point of Superalloy – Inconel 718
Melting point of superalloy – Inconel 718 steel is around 1400°C.
In general, melting is a phase change of a substance from the solid to the liquid phase. The melting point of a substance is the temperature at which this phase change occurs. The melting point also defines a condition in which the solid and liquid can exist in equilibrium.
Thermal Conductivity of Superalloy – Inconel 718
The thermal conductivity of superalloy – Inconel 718 is 6.5 W/(m.K).
The heat transfer characteristics of a solid material are measured by a property called the thermal conductivity, k (or λ), measured in W/m.K. It is a measure of a substance’s ability to transfer heat through a material by conduction. Note that Fourier’s law applies for all matter, regardless of its state (solid, liquid, or gas), therefore, it is also defined for liquids and gases.
The thermal conductivity of most liquids and solids varies with temperature. For vapors, it also depends upon pressure. In general:
Most materials are very nearly homogeneous, therefore we can usually write k = k (T). Similar definitions are associated with thermal conductivities in the y- and z-directions (ky, kz), but for an isotropic material the thermal conductivity is independent of the direction of transfer, kx = ky = kz = k.
Costs of Superalloys – Price
It is difficult to know the exact cost of the different materials because it strongly depends on many variables such as:
- the type of product you would like to buy
- the amount of the product
- the exact type of material
Raw materials prices change daily. They are primarily driven by supply, demand and energy prices.
However, as a rule of thumb, stainless steels cost four to fives times much as carbon steel in material costs. Carbon steel is about $500/ton, while stainless steel costs about $2000/ton. The more alloying elements the steel contains, the more expensive it is. Based on that rule, it is logical to assume that the 316L austenitic stainless steel and the 13% Cr martensitic stainless steel will cost less than the 22% Cr and the 25% Cr duplex stainless steels. The nickel-based steels would probably cost at least around the price of the duplex stainless steels. There are obviously numerous kinds of steels from low to high carbon and a wide range of evaluations of stainless steels that change immensely in expense. For example, Inconel 600 (registered trademark of Special Metals), which is one of a family of austenitic nickel-chromium-based superalloys costs about $40000/ton.