Open Journal of Metal, 2011, 1, 25-33
doi:10.4236/ojmetal.2011.12004 Published Online December 2011 (
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJMetal
Preparation and Characteristics of Cu-Al2O3
F. Shehata*, M. Abdelhameed, A. Fathy, M. Elmahdy
Department of Mechanical Design and Production Engineering,
Faculty of Engineering, Zagazig University, Zagazig, Egypt
E-mail: *
Received October 13, 2011; revised November 2, 2011; accepted November 20, 2011
Thermo-chemical technique was used to synthesize Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposite powders. The process was car-
ried out by addition of Cu powder to aqueous solution of aluminum nitrate. Afterwards, a thermal treatment
at 850˚C for 1 hr was conducted to get insitu powders of CuO and stable alumina (Al2O3). The CuO was re-
duced in hydrogen atmosphere into copper powder. The nanocomposite powders of both copper and alumina
were thoroughly mixed, cold pressed into briquettes and sintered at 850˚C in hydrogen atmosphere. The
x-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscope (SEM) with energy dispersive spectrometer (EDS) were
used to characterize the structure of the obtained powders. The results showed that alumina nanoparticles (20
nm) and ultra fine copper crystallite (200 nm) were obtained. SEM and EDS showed that the alumina parti-
cles were uniformly dispersed within the copper crystallite matrix. The structure also revealed formation of a
third phase (CuAlO2) at copper-alumina interface. The hardness and density results showed that the gain in
hardness was found to be dependent on the alumina contents rather than on the relative densities. The alu-
mina content up to 12.5% resulted in an increase of 47.9% in hardness and slight decrease (7.6%) in relative
densities. The results of compression tests showed considerable increase in compression strength (67%) as
alumina content increased up to 12.5%. The compression strength showed further increase in compression
strength (24%) as strain rates were increased from 10–4 s–1 to 10–2 s–1. Strain hardening and strain rate pa-
rameters “n” and “m” have shown positive values that improved the total strain and they can be used to pre-
dict formability of the nanocomposite.
Keywords: Cu-Al2O3, Nanocomposite, Thermochemical, Compression, Strain Rate, Strain Hardening
1. Introduction
Copper has been widely used in many industrial applica-
tions such as: contact supports, frictional break parts,
electrode materials among others [1-5]. Pure copper has
relatively low mechanical properties. Alloying of copper
with zinc or tin was used to improve the strength of the
pure metal. Grain refinement strengthening (or Hall-Petch
strengthening) was also used as a method of strengthening
copper by changing their average crystallite (grain) size [6].
Recently Metal Matrix Composites (MMCs) and Nano
MMC reinforced with ceramic particulates offered sig-
nificant increase in strength over pure copper and their
alloys. The strengths of these composites were found to
be proportional to the percentage contents and fineness
of the reinforced particles [7]. MMCs with a uniform
dispersion of particles smaller than 100 nm size exhibit
more outstanding properties over MMCs and are termed
Metal Matrix Nano-composites (MMNCs). The MMNCs
are also assumed to overcome the shortcoming of MMCs
poor ductility. It has been reported that with a small frac-
tion of nano-sized reinforcements, MMNCs could obtain
comparable or even far superior mechanical properties
than MMCs. The main advantages of MMNCs include
excellent mechanical performance, feasible to be used at
elevated temperatures, good wear resistance, low creep
rate, etc. Preparation and processing of MMNCs have
been recently studied, as the processing of such compos-
ites is quite a challenge. Though a variety of processing
techniques have been explored and studied over the re-
cent years, none have emerged as the optimum-process-
ing route. The major issue that needs to be addressed is
the tendency of nano-sized particles to cluster or ag-
glomerate and also the challenge as to how to disperse
them uniformly in the matrix structure [8].
Fabrication of the aluminum oxide nanoparticles into
copper matrix can be divided into two major methods;
ex-situ and in-situ [9]. The ex-situ method is usually cost
efficient but the alumina particles tend to agglomerate
due to poor wettability between the matrix and rein-
forcement [10,11]. The in-situ methods can provide fine
and uniformly distributed particles but they are usually
not cost-effective. Obtaining powders by a thermochemical
insitu method, in which the input materials are in the
liquid state, is not a new procedure but recently, due to
the development of modern materials with cost effective
characteristics an intensive interest in thermochemical
method for production of ultra fine nano-powders has
been emerged [12-14]. According to Jena et al. [13] the
synthesis of nano-composite powders by a chemical
method is possible in two ways. The first method com-
prises adding of a certain quantity of CuO into a solution
of aluminum nitrate. In the second synthesis method,
aluminum nitrate and CuO are mixed in appropriate
quantities of ammonium hydroxide. In both methods the
mixture was annealed at 850˚C and then reduced in a
hydrogen atmosphere at 975˚C for 2 h until the final
structure was obtained.
Recently Shehata et al. [15] used mechanochemical
method with two different routes to synthesize the
Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposite powders. First, route-A was
carried out by addition of Cu to aqueous solution of alu-
minum nitrate, and second, route-B was also carried out
by addition of Cu to aqueous solution of aluminum ni-
trate and ammonium hydroxide. In both routes, the mix-
tures were heated in air, reduced in hydrogen atmosphere
and milled mechanically to get ultra fine powder oxides
of CuO and Al2O3.
The objective of the present work is intended to pro-
duce of Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposites with various alumina
contents using cost effective method using insitu ther-
mochemical technique without any milling. The tech-
nique comprises adding of a certain quantity of cheap
micro copper powder into a solution of aluminum nitrate
as starting materials. The structure characteristics and
physical and mechanical behaviour of the obtained nano-
composite and monolithic copper were examined, pre-
sented and analysed.
2. Experimental Work
The desired amount of copper powder and aluminum
nitrate Al(NO3)3 were thoroughly mixed and used as
starting solution to synthesize nanocomposite of Cu-
Al2O3 powders. The alumina loadings were adjusted to
be 2.5, 7.5 and 12.5 wt% of the final composites, so that
we can investigate the impact of alumina contents on the
mechanical and physical properties of the obtained
The solution of copper and aluminum nitrate was
spray dried at 180˚C to produce the precursor powder.
The precursor powder was heated to 850˚C in an open air
for one hour; thereby copper oxide (CuO) and the ther-
modynamically stable phase (α-Al2O3) were formed ac-
cording to following Equation:
Cu +AlNOCuO +AlO6NOO
 (1)
The obtained powders of CuO and Al2O3 were ther-
mally treated in a hydrogen atmosphere at a temperature
of 500˚C for 30 minutes, whereby the copper oxide was
reduced and transformed into elementary copper and the
Al2O3 remained unchanged.
Using powder metallurgy technique, the thermally
treated powders were pressed from the top side in a cy-
lindrical mould at 600 MPa and sintered at 850˚C for 120
minutes in a hydrogen atmosphere. Previous publications
by the authors give a detailed description of the proce-
dures [15].
X-ray diffractmeter with Cu Ka radiation was used to
assess the formation of phase’s transformation and to
measure the crystallite size of powders using the Scherer’s
formula [16]. Composite powder was examined using
scanning electron microscopy (SEM) with energy dis-
persive spectrometer (EDS).
Relative densities were calculated as the ratio of the
experimental to the theoretical densities of samples. Ex-
perimental densities were determined by the Archimedes
method and the theoretical densities were calculated
from the simple rule of mixtures, taking the fully dense
values for copper as 8.94 g/cm3 and alumina as 3.95 g/
cm3. Hardness measurements of the composite samples
have been measured using Brinell hardness testing ma-
chine. Tests were conducted using a steel ball indenter of
2.5 mm diameter and load of 62.5 kg force. At least five
measurements of hardness and density were performed
on each sample.
The compression tests were carried out using a hy-
draulic testing machine. The stress versus strain curves
were obtained over an initial strain rates of 10–4 s–1, 10–3
s–1 and 10–2 s
–1. Cylindrical specimens with height 12
mm and diameter 12 mm were used in compliance with
ASTM standards (E9-89a) for measuring the compres-
sive response of the matrix and composite materials [17].
Special graphite-based grease is placed between the
tested specimen and the platen of the compression ma-
chine to minimize the friction. The percentage reduction
was performed up to 50% reduction in height; some
specimens were fractured before reaching 50% height
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJMetal
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJMetal
3. Results and Discussions
3.1. Structural Evolutions
Figure 1 shows X-ray diffraction (XRD) patterns of na-
nocomposite (Cu-12.5% Al2O3) powders after thermal
treating and before CuO reduction. The XRD pattern
shows three crystalline peaks that were identified as CuO,
Al2O3 and CuAlO2. The particle size of alumina, (Al2O3)
was calculated from X-ray line broadening using Scherer’s
formula (D = 0.9λ/Bcosθ), where, D is the crystallite size,
λ is the wavelength of the radiation, θ is the Bragg’s an-
gle and B is the full width at half maximum [16]. The
size of alumina nanoparticles showed a value of 20 nm
whilst size of copper crystallites were 200 nm. The third
peak corresponds to a third phase of CuAlO2. The forma-
tion of this phase is thermodynamiccally possible on
Cu-Al contact surfaces. The formed third phase influ-
ences the nature of the interface bonds and dislocation
motions. It greatly improves both the mechanical and
electrical properties of the sintered systems [23].
The CuO is reduced to Cu via an intermediate phase of
Cu2O rather than undergoing a direct reduction to ele-
mental copper [18]. However, the nanoparticles phase of
Al2O3 remained in the unchanged form after hydrogen
reduction process. The alumina particles are uniformly
dispersed within the copper matrix. X-ray diffraction of
powder after the reduction by hydrogen showed presence
of two peaks that correspond to the elementary copper
and Al2O3 nano particles as shown in Figure 2. In ac-
cordance with the experimental set-up, only the peaks
which correspond to elementary copper and Al2O3 particles
Figure 1. X-ray diffraction analyses of a Cu-Al2O3 samples containing 12.5% alumina showing CuO, Al2O3 and CuAlO2
Figure 2. X-ray diffraction analyses of a Cu-Al2O3 samples containing 12.5% alumina powder after reduction.
were registered in the structure. The intensity of the
Al2O3 peaks showed lower intensity values than copper.
The alumina intensity values are not up to the proportion
of the 12.5% alumina. The reason may be attributed to
the facts that alumina particles are extremely small that
they are embedded in the copper matrix.
The obtained Cu-Al2O3 powders were characterized by
Scanning Electronic Microscopy (SEM) and with an en-
ergy spectrum analyzer (EDS) as presented in Figure 3.
Nano particle sizes are noticeable with sizes less than
100 nm. The presences of agglomeration as well as nodular
individual particles are seen in the structure. Most particles
have rough surface morphology. The particle sizes
seemed to be slightly increased as contents of alumina
are increased from 2.5% to 12.5 %. The alumina particu-
late dispersion could inhibit the movement of the grain
boundaries and consequently the grain growth. The ag-
glomeration of particles as a result of sintering process
resulted in larger particle sizes as seen by SEM than that
obtained from XRD.
Figure 4 shows images of SEM and Electron Dispersive
Figure 3. SEM and EDS analysis micrograph of the Cu-
Al2O3 nanocomposite powders.
Figure 4. SEM image and EDS surface scanning of Cu-12.5 % Al2O3 composite, showing distribution of the Cu (Top right),
Al (middle left) and oxygen (middle right) .
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJMetal
Spectrum (EDS) of sintered Cu-12.5% Al2O3 nano-
composite. The SEM image indicates fairly homogene-
ous distribution of alumina in Cu matrix. EDS image
scan indicates that uniform distribution of Cu, Al and O
elements all over surface. The level of copper is much
higher than that of aluminum and oxygen. The EDS re-
sults revealed locations with a relatively high concentra-
tion of Al and O elements. These locations were thought
as being “Al2O3-rich” which may represent the presence
of a third phase of CuAlO2 (spinel) at interface between
alumina particles and copper crystallites matrix. The
spinel phase forms a strong bond at the interfaces.It was
found that the Al and O are not limited to specific re-
gions, but they are dispersed and overlapping throughout
the entire microstructure surface. It can also be noticed
that a concentration gradient instead of an abrupt change
of elements at the metal/ceramic interface. The particle is
surrounded by another region with decreasing composi-
tion of Al and O and increasing amount of Cu towards
the Cu matrix. This gradual change in concentration in-
dicates forming of a third phase compound such as
CuAlO2 or CuAlO4 in the material. Furthermore, the
elemental copper covers almost the entire surface of the
as shown in top right of the figure. The aluminum and
oxygen elements are present in fewer values in the
In order to further identify the Al2O3 particles within
the Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposite powder before sintering.
The powder was flushed with 10% nitric acid to selec-
tively dissolve the copper and keep the alumina (Al2O3)
nanoparticles. Alumina nanoparticles were then extracted
by filtering through 0.5 micron mesh. After the final fil-
tration, the sample was dried in air at room temperature
for 24 h. Figure 5 shows SEM bright field image of the
extracted Al2O3 nanoparticles. SEM observations showed
that the particles of Al2O3 in the composite powder
produced have sizes ranged from 20 to 60 nm. Most par-
ticles showed regular and nearly nodular shape appear-
3.2. Physical and Mechanical Properties
Nanocomposite materials are expected to have special
physical and mechanical properties particularly in the
case of the Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposites. Alumina particles
can be uniformly dispersed in a Cu matrix, providing
unique characteristics, such as high degree of strength
without great loss in plastic deformation. The particulate
dispersion may inhibit the movement of both dislocations
and grain boundaries. In this regard, Al2O3 has been used
as a ceramic dispersion phase in many cases because of
its low price and its excellent chemical stability. Table 1
shows the relative density and hardness of nanocompo-
sites at various alumina contents.
The gain in hardness was found to be dependent on the
alumina contents rather than on the relative densities.
Slight decrease in relative densities was noticed as
alumina percentage was increased. This is an indication
of the presence of slight voids in nanocrystalline metals
that would undoubtedly lead to weaker mechanical pro-
perties. However, the hardness values showed an in-
crease of 47.9% as alumina contents are increased up to
12.5% Al2O3. Whilst relative densities values showed a
decrease of only 7.6% as alumina contents were in-
creased by same amounts. The gain in hardness may be
attributed to the dispersion of alumina nanoparticles and
the strong bond at the copper-alumina interfaces resulted
from presence of the third phase (CuAlO2).
There are many factors which influence the composites
mechanical properties such as hardness, compression
strength, speed of loading or strain rate etc. In this regard
compression strength at various strain rates have been
carried out to assess the toughness and formability of
Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposite. Figure 6 shows typical com-
pressive stress-strain curves for nanocomposites of various
Figure 5. SEM bright field image of the extracted Al2O3
Table 1. Relative density and hardness of Cu-Al2O3 sam-
Composites Relative Density % Brinell hardness (BHN)
Cu 95.11 43.70
Al2O3 92.53 59.83
Al2O3 89.99 67.90
Cu-12.5wt. %
Al2O3 87.86 79.40
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJMetal
(a) (b)
(c) (d)
Figure 6. Compression stress-strain curves of Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposites. (a) = 10–4 s–1 (b) = 10–3 s–1 (c) = 10–2 s–1 and
(d) σ vs..
alumina contents. The tests were carried out at initial
strain rates of 10–4 s–1, 10–3 s–1 and 10–2 s–1 at room tem-
perature. Figure 6(d) summarizes the effect of strain
rates on compressive strengths at a specific strain of 0.15.
Figures illustrate that the compressive strength of the
Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposite is much higher than that of
monolithic copper at all tested strain rates. A significant
increase in compressive strengths can be achieved by
increasing the alumina contents up to 12.5%. At fixed
strain of 0.15, the compressive strength increased from
300 to 500 MPa as alumina is increased to 12.5%. i.e. an
increase of 67 %. Further increase in the strength could
be achieved by increasing strain rate. Compressive
strength is increased from 500 to 620 MPa as strain rate
is increased from 10–4 s–1 (Figure 6(a)) to strain rate of
10–2 s–1 (Figure 6(c)) i.e. an increase of 24%. However
increasing alumina contents and increasing strain rates
generally resulted in ductility decrease 40% - 55%.
An attempt was made to quantify the possible strength-
ening effects of the nanocomposite copper materials with
Al2O3 dispersoids. Two strengthening mechanisms were
proposed for high hardness and compression strength of
the materials, i.e., grain size and dispersion hardening
effects [19]. The main strengthening of metallic materials is
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJMetal
based on preventing dislocation motion and propagation.
However, there is a limit to this mode of strengthening in
nanocomposite. Grain sizes can range from about 100
µm to 1 µm in traditional materials whilst in nanocomposite
materials the grains are less than 100 nm. At grain size of
about 10 nm only one or two dislocations can fit inside a
grain [20]. This small numbers of dislocations inside the
grains may prohibit the dislocation pile-up and grain
boundary diffusion. The lattice would resolve the applied
stress then by grain boundary sliding [21], resulting in a
decrease in the material strength and increase in ductility.
However, experiments on many nanocrystalline materials
demonstrated that if the grains reached a small enough
size, the compression strength would either remain constant
or decrease with decreasing grains size. This phenomenon
has been termed as the reverse or inverse Hall-Petch
Relation [22].
Furthermore, the alumina nanometric particulates cause
dispersion hardening effects that impede dislocation motion,
increasing the compressive strength of the material. In
addition to the formation of the third phase that causes great
reinforcement at copper-alumina interface. It has been
concluded that the binding mechanisms on copper-third
phase or alumina-third phase interfaces are considerably
stronger than copper-alumina interfaces [23]. Therefore,
the presence of uniform distribution of fine alumina
particles and formation of the third phase are considered
as the main reinforcing parameters causing a considerable
increase in compression strengths of the Cu-Al2O3 nano-
The strain hardening exponent (n) was calculated from
the true stress-strain curves for a strain range between
0.10 and 0.15 using the following equation:
Where σ1 and σ2 are stresses at the corresponding strain
and 2
Figure 7 shows the effect of strain rate on the strain
hardening exponent (n) of nanocomposite materials and
monolithic copper. The strain hardening exponent “n”
seemed to be generally increased as strain rate is in-
creased. The values of “n” have increased as the strain
rates were increased up to 10–3 s–1. At higher strain rate,
the ‘n’ values have slightly decreased with increase of
the strain rate from 10–3 s–1 to 10–2 s–1. The maximum “n”
was found at strain rate of 10–3 s
–1. Values of “n” for
nanocomposite were found to be higher than that of the
monolithic copper. Higher n values generally lead to
higher compressive strength. The increase of n values
may be attributed to the dynamic strain ageing effects
that enhance the strain hardening and reduce the dynamic
recovery [19]. Dynamic strain aging is a phenomenon in
which the nanoparticles of alumina may diffuse around
dislocations and inhibit dislocation motion.
The reason for decrease in n-value at the higher strain
rate (10–2 s
–1) is probably due to thermal softening. At
higher strain rates, the temperatures are increased than
the desired specific temperature which leads to thermal
softening [5]. At higher temperatures, the dislocation
loops can multiply and move from plane to plane by
cross-slip, the processes that lead to a recovery of me-
chanical properties producing a wide plastic deformation.
On the other hand, the strain rate hardening exponents
(m) were calculated from the true stress-strain curves for
a strain range between 0.10 and 0.15. The value of “m” is
calculated by comparing the stress-strain curves of mo-
nolithic copper and nanocomposite materials at two dif-
ferent strain rates 1
and 2
. The simplest method is re-
flected in the relationship between the flow stress (σ) and
the strain rate (
) using the following Equation:
ln( )
ln( )
where σ1 and σ2 are stresses at the corresponding strain
rates 1
and 2
Figure 8 shows the effect of strain on the strain rate
sensitivity exponent (m) of nanocomposite and mono-
lithic copper. The m-values were calculated between
strain rates of 10–4 and 10–3 s
–1 (Figure 6(a)) and be-
tween 10–4 and 10–2 s
–1 (Figure 6(b)). The values of m
have shown to be decreased as the strain is increased
from 0.10 to 0.20 in both figures. The maximum ‘m’
values are observed for monolithic copper and for nano-
composites of the smallest alumina contents. Moreover,
the wider strain rates at which m were calculated (10–4
s–1 and10–2 s–1) showed higher m-values compared to the.
Figure 7. Effect of strain rate on strain hardening exponent
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJMetal
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. OJMetal
(a) (b)
Figure 8. Strain rate exponent “m” against strain of Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposites Strain rates between 10–4 and 10–3 s
–1 (b)
Strain rates between 10–4 and 10–2 s–1.
narrower strain rates (10–4 and 10–3 s
–1). In both strain
rate combinations, m-values of the nanocomposite showed
smaller values than that of the corresponding monolithic
The positive increase in “n” and “m” values would re-
sult in improvement of both uniform and post uniform
strains to failure and therefore improves the formability
of the material. The easy obtained parameters “n” and
“m” can be used to predict the formability of the nano-
composite materials in nearly the same way as in tradi-
tional materials.
4. Conclusions
The following conclusions can be made from the present
1) Monolithic Cu and Cu-Al2O3 nanocomposites pow-
ders can be successfully synthesized using the thermo-
chemical technique followed by pressing and sintering.
2) Thermochemical process gave nanoparticles of alu-
mina of 20 nm size that are uniformly dispersed within
Cu-matrix. Significant grain refinement of copper was
3) Formation of pronounced third phase (CuAlO2) re-
vealed at copper-alumina interface that causes strong
bond at the interface.
4) Increasing alumina up to 12.5% copper led to a sig-
nificant improvement in hardness of 47.9%, and an in-
crease of compressive strength by 67 %.
5) Increasing strain rate from 10–4 s
–1 to 10–2 s
–1 fur-
ther increased compressive strengths by 24%.
6) Increasing both alumina contents and strain rates
resulted in ductility decrease by 40% - 55%.
7) The positive values of “n” and “m” at room tem-
perature increase the total strain to fracture and therefore
increase the formability of the composite. Parameters “n”
and “m” can be used to predict the formability of the
nanocomposite materials.
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