Journal of Minerals & Materials Characterization & Engineering, Vol. 7, No.2, pp 127-145, 2008 Printed in the USA. All rights reserved
Sigma Phase Formation and Embrittlement of Cast Iron-Chromium-
Nickel (Fe-Cr-Ni) Alloys
A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby
Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC)
SABIC Technology Center-Jubail, P.O. Box 11669, Al-Jubail, 31961
Saudi Arabia
HK alloy is a member of the heat resistant cast alloy family (H-Series) steels. They
are widely used in the petrochemical industry for components requiring enhanced
high temperature properties. Microstructural changes occurring at high temperature
clearly affects its mechanical properties. These properties have been shown in HK-40
steel subjected to high-temperature degradation and prone to the formation of sigma
phase. The investigation carried out included metallurgical analysis, materials
characterization and mechanical analysis. Metallurgical analysis included advanced
metallography techniques to characterize its microstructure morphology and
properties. Significant depletion of vital precipitates observed that definitely degraded
its high temperature properties. Mechanical analysis included hardness profile, tensile
testing of samples taken from the tree supports and tested in room temperature and in
800°C environments. Experimental results revealed that the structure of HK-40
affected by the formation of the high temperature brittle sigma-σ-phase. Nonetheless,
mechanical properties did not suffer much at higher temperature.
Keywords: Sigma-phase, Corrosion; Microstructure; Heat resistant steels; Hardness
Many components within oil, gas, thermal-power, chemical and petrochemical plants are
casted of heat resistant alloys “HRA” to accommodate the operating high temperature
environments. These alloys are experiencing variety of degrading mechanisms. As
reliability sector of these plants are evolving, the assessment of damage and of the risk
128 A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby Vol.7, No.2
associated with their degradation have become important and at times a priority.
However, knowledge of potential mechanisms of degradation, rate at which damage may
manifest and propagate with each component is a fundamental path in making proper
assessment. The HRA drives its resistance because of the combinational effect of Fe-Ni-
Cr “HP” or Fe-Cr-Ni “HK”.
The majority of the reported deterioration in high temperature operating components are
creep damage [1-5], microstructural degradation [6-8], high temperature fatigue [9-11],
creep-fatigue [12-14], sigma-phase embrittlement [15-19] and carburization [20-22],
hydrogen damage, graphitization, thermal shock, erosion, liquid metal embrittlement, and
high temperature corrosion of various types. Generally, these failures are usually the
results of microstructural changes at high temperature. Most of microstructural changes
occur to alloys carbides constituents [23-24]. HRA such as HP and HK alloys original
microstructure will consists of an austenite matrix with finer dispersions of carbides (Cr-
rich M
or Nb-rich MC, depending on the alloy) in the matrix along with clusters of
NbC and M
in the interdendritic regions and dispersions of M
along the seams
between colonies of dendrites [25,26].
Microstructure will remain that way at room temperature and changes will only occur at
elevated temperatures. For example, at 590 to 650°C (1100 to 1200°F), precipitation
starts at regions near interdendritic and will grow with further exposure to same
temperature. Carbon supply and depletion from the nearby regions is the controlling
factor in further precipitation and growth of these carbides. As the component operating
temperature increases beyond 650 to 970°C (1200-1778°F), carbides begin to
coalescence as they grow causing decrease in amount of precipitation, and diminishing
amount of remaining non-coalesced carbides. At much higher temperature, carbides
become coarse and bulky. Theoretically, carbides coarsening at temperatures slightly
below 1200°C (2192°F) reverses motion [15-26]. Precipitated carbides within the
matrices begin to reverse back into solution. In reality, this can partially take place
hindered by many operational parameters and type of alloy [27,28]. Experimentally,
was predicted to be stable in HP6301 up to about 1250°C (2282°F) and to about
1282°C (2340°F) in HPCoW [28].
If the alloys were to remain in an operating temperature high enough to allow carbides
(metal carbides) to grow and maintain its structure, then the material become sensitized.
A counterpart to sensitization is sigma “σ” phase (metal-iron/metal-metal phase)
formation, although different in composition but somewhat similar in location and
precipitation mechanism.
Vol.7, No.2 Sigma Phase Formation And Embrittlement 129
The precipitation of σ-phase also is detrimental to the corrosion properties such as
crevice and pitting corrosion resistance [29-30]. Formation temperature in open literature
somewhat varies but with general agreement in the range of 620 to 900°C (1148-1652°F).
The rate of formation and growth of σ- phase increases as temperature is held at 800°C
(1472°F) [31,32] and had deleterious effect on the alloy’s mechanical properties. On the
other hand, [33,34] reported that σ- phase will dissolve if held at 1000°C reverting into
matrix, hence will not affect mechanical properties. This investigation has correlated
formation and presence of σ-phase in heat resistant cast material HK-40 to its
morphology and mechanical properties both at low and high temperature.
HK-40 cast samples became available after industrial prolonged exposure to
approximately 850°C (1562°F). The intended use of HK-40 was as structural support
inside a furnace. The exposure duration was no more than 6 months or 4000 hours. While
in actual practice, the alloy was subjected to regular operation and decoking regimes
shutdowns when necessitates. Several samples suffered high temperature cracking, and
all were of similar features.
Figure 1 shows a fracture surface of one of the samples. Clearly, the fracture surface
exhibits that of brittle failure with large facets. There was no apparent corrosion of any
type and surface appeared oxidized. In addition, there was no plastic deformation or
otherwise observed.
The samples were sectioned and then prepared using standard metallographic techniques.
The samples were electrolytically etched with a KOH and water solution was used to
identify the carbides that were present in the microstructure. Microstructural
characterization consisted of optical (OM) and scanning electron microscopes (SEM).
Chemical compositions of the phases were determined without standards using an energy
dispersive spectrometer (EDS) system that was attached to the SEM.
Figure 2 shows an optical micrograph of a sample showing cross section of the fracture
surface in the as etched condition showing dendritic microstructure typical of cast
Figure 3 is SEM photomicrograph showing a location just below the surface of the
fracture. The whole surface has been oxidized. In the area of the same figure, sigma-σ-
phase has been identified with aid of EDS. Figure 4 shows an image of an area within the
sample along with its identified phases. Attacked phase was again σ-phase.
130 A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby Vol.7, No.2
Figures 5, 6 and 7 show different locations within the sample where it has been attached
and also contain σ-phases and secondary carbides precipitates. Cracks were filled with
Figure 1. Fracture surface of one of the samples-HK-40.
Figure 2. Cross section of the HK-40 sample, etched, KOH.
Figure 3. SEM optical micrographs showing cross section sample in the as polished
condition along with its EDS analysis. Elemental analysis indicates oxide formation.
Vol.7, No.2 Sigma Phase Formation And Embrittlement 131
Figure 4. SEM photo micrograph of an inner section within a sample below the fracture
surface along with EDS analysis. Composition of lower part is typical of sigma phase.
High temp attack in on σ-phase.
Figure 5. SEM photomicrograph showing signs of high temperature attack mainly on
sigma phase location.
132 A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby Vol.7, No.2
Figure 6. SEM photomicrograph along with its EDS analysis showing cracking filed with
Figure 7. SEM photomicrograph along with its EDS analysis showing high temperature
cracking mainly following sigma phase locations.
oxides. Figures 8 and 9 are optical micrograph of a sample etched using sigma phase
etchant. It is clear that the cross section of the fracture surface exhibited an excessive
amount of σ-phases along grain boundaries and along the fracture surface itself. It was
also clear that the areas adjacent and below σ-phases were depleted of Cr, Si and Ni. This
has prevented formation of SiO
and Cr
as clearly shown in Figures 8 and 9. In
addition, the stringers also have transformed into σ-phase. Cracking is inter-dendritic.
Materials characterization was possible with the use of X-ray fluorescence spectrometer
(XRF). Table 1 lists the results of this analysis. Major elements are within the range of
that of HK40.
Secondary carbides
Vol.7, No.2 Sigma Phase Formation And Embrittlement 133
MAG. 500X
MAG. 500X
Figure 8. Optical micrographs of the samples in the as etched condition, showing
excessive amount of sigma phase. Sigma phase etchant been used.
-phases platelets
Depleted regions of Cr,
Si and Ni
134 A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby Vol.7, No.2
MAG. 1000X
MAG. 1000x
Figure 9. Optical micrographs of the samples in the as etched condition showing sigma
phases and secondary carbides precipitates.
-phases platelets
Secondary carbides
Vol.7, No.2 Sigma Phase Formation And Embrittlement 135
Table 1. Nominal and measured chemical compositions (wt%) of tube materials
Element XRF
Min% Max%
C 0.39 0.35 0.45
Al 0.01
Si 1.09 0.5 1.5
S 0.013 - 0.03
P 0.015 - 0.03
Ti 0.011
V 0.058
Cr 25.38 23 27
Mn 0.69 0.4 1.5
Fe Balance
Ni 19.48 19 22
Min% Max%
Cu 0.01
Nb 0.195
Mo 0.03
To understand the alloy’s mechanical properties after the test, a tensile test was carried
out. Tensile testing was carried out at room temperature and at 800°C. The room
temperature tensile testing was done on an Instron universal testing machine, while the
tests at elevated temperature were conducted in the Gleeble machine. For the 800°C tests,
the samples were heated to 800°C at 5°C/s, and then kept at 800°C for 3 minutes before
testing. Two samples were tested at each of the temperatures.
Results of the tensile samples are shown in Figures 10, 11, 12 and 13. There is clearly no
defined yield point on most of the graphs, Figure 13. The room temperature samples
broke while the tensile test curve was still going in the upward direction, with very little
136 A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby Vol.7, No.2
elongation. The two 800°C samples, on the other hand, showed a little ductility, which is
also reflected in their figures for reduction in area (%A).
Figure 10. Photo of the room temperature (RT-top) and at 800°C tensile samples after the
test. The samples of the RT shows no plastic deformation, indicative of brittle fracture;
while the slight necking is observed in the high.
Vol.7, No.2 Sigma Phase Formation And Embrittlement 137
Figure 11. Fracture surface of the tensile sample after testing in RM showing cleavage
morphology of brittle fracture.
Figure 12. Fracture surface of the tensile sample after testing at 800°C showing mixed
mode fracture-cleavage morphology of brittle fracture and dimples of ductile. Still the
major part is brittle. The dimples explain the necking part on the sample.
138 A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby Vol.7, No.2
0 12 34 5 67 8910
Tensile stress (MPa)
Tensile strain (%)
Figure 13. Tensile tests stress and strain graphs of the samples tested in room temperature
(top) and at 800°C (bottom).
At 800°C
At Room Temperature
Vol.7, No.2 Sigma Phase Formation And Embrittlement 139
The fact that the maximum strength values are about the same for both the room
temperature as well as the 800°C samples is really the result of the brittleness of the
material. The room temperature samples broke very soon after reaching the yield point,
while still very much on the upward part of the curve. Had they been able to last until
their “normal” ultimate tensile strength point, at the “normal” apex of the tensile test
curve, the maximum strength for the room temperature samples would have been much
higher. The maximum strength for the 800°C samples is probably about what the ultimate
tensile strength of the material is at that temperature. Proof of the actual weakening of the
material at the elevated temperature is seen in the much lower yield point strength at
800°C. All of the fracture surfaces showed brittle appearances; although, the samples in
the 800°C test exhibited ductile fracture. Still, the major part of it was brittle.
Average hardness of two samples taken from both fracture surface were 96.2 and 96.5
Rockwell B (HRB) or 210-220 HB (Brinell). Nominal hardness of as cast 91.5 HB
(Rockwell B) or 190HB (Brinell) and as aged 192 HB according to ASTM A 351/A
351M. The difference was not much.
Table 2. Tensile results of tree support samples tested in room and 800°C.
Sample 0.2% Proof
stress (Mpa)
Reduction (A)
RT1 419 495 0.7 1.0
RT2 376 470 0.8 1.0
800°C-1 200 496 13.5 -
800°C-2 212 478 28.9 -
Table 3. Nominal mechanical properties [ASTM-A351]
MPa Ksi
MPa %
HK40 62 425 30 240 10.0
140 A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby Vol.7, No.2
Sigma (σ) phase (iron-chromium compound) can develop in austenitic stainless steels as
seen in the Figures 4 to 9. It is hard-brittle intermetallic phase. For this reason it has a
direct effect on the mechanical property of the metal. It can form when service
temperature is within 565-952°C (1050-1700°F). The upper limit for sigma phase
formation varies from 870 to 980°C (1600 to 1800°F) [35, 28]. For example,
embrittlement in 304SS usually occurs slowly. Only about 2 to 3% sigma phase will
show in its macrostructure after 10 years at 650°C (1200°F) [36]. Near 900 °C, it forms
within a couple of minutes [37, 38].
The testing temperature is well within the upper limits, as actually occurring in real case
situation, embrittlement can occur in a much faster mode. Although sigma phase has been
detected and its effect on the material embrittlement has been established, it is not the
sole cause of the failure. It was more of an assistant.
Sigma (σ) phase is hard and fragile and its formation causes loss of toughness. In
addition, when formed, it consumes chromium and molybdenum present within the
matrix, which leads to the depletion in these elements as has been seen in the Figures. On
the other hand, it is usually not detrimental at high temperature, but if cooled below
260°C (50°F) or below, it will result in almost complete loss of toughness [39]. The
problem becomes serious when the phase is continuous in some parts of the material, as
in our case. Intergranular corrosion will result in selective attack of this phase
Iron-base alloys with high chromium contents 18 to 25 wt% are generally prone to brittle
sigma-phase formation during prolonged exposures above 650°C. Qualitatively, alloys
with nickel contents greater than 30 wt% are less prone to sigma-formation but are more
susceptible to corrosion in high temperature environments. The precipitation of Fe-Cr
sigma phase, which occurs predominantly at grain boundaries in the alloy, can lead to
considerable reduction in creep ductility at elevated temperatures and loss of fracture
toughness when the components are cooled to room temperature. The allowable stress
data presented earlier are based on extrapolated values from short-time test data and do
not account for the property reduction due to microstructural changes in the alloy [40]. In
this investigation, typical sigma phase composition was 45% Fe, 44% Cr, 9% Ni and 3%
Si complementing other investigators findings [10, 41].
As normally produced, the HK alloy type is stable austenitic over its entire temperature
range of application. The as-cast microstructure consists of an austenite matrix containing
massive carbides as scattered islands or networks. After aging at service temperature, the
alloy exhibits a dispersion of fine, granular carbides within the austenite grains, with
Vol.7, No.2 Sigma Phase Formation And Embrittlement 141
subsequent agglomeration if the temperature is high enough. These fine, dispersed
carbides contribute to the creep strength of the alloy. The most susceptible site for the
formation of sigma phase is the grain boundaries for its high-energy [42]. In other words,
the smaller the size of the area the greater tendency of the formation. Hence, formation of
this phase was possible in this cast material due to its dendritic microstructure and
smaller sizes.
Induced dislocations contribute directly to the alloy’s strength and resistance. Interaction
of carbide’s growth and dislocations are of special interest. Once carbides grow past
certain size, their interaction with dislocations becomes less effective and, consequently,
the alloys start losing their strength. Carbide precipitates grow not only by diffusion
processes, but also by coalescence with one another to reclaim size. The higher the
temperature, the farther their growth and coalescence progression become.
A lamellar (stringers) constituent tentatively identified as an austenite, carbonitride
eutectoid resembling pearlite also is frequently observed in HK alloys but its exact nature
is in doubt [40]. If these phases are present in excessive amounts, it will not affect the
alloy strength at high temperature. Only affecting factor in the failure is the unbalanced
composition of these phases. This is always possible within the previously mentioned
nominal chemical ranges of this grade, and in this event, some ferrite is present in the
austenite matrix, which will directly affect the local metallurgical and mechanical
properties. This ferrite that is adjacent to the austenite will transform to the brittle sigma
phase if the alloy is held for more than short times around 816°C (1500°F) with
consequent weakening at this temperature and embrittlement [43]. The direct implication
of sigma phase precipitation and growth will cause Cr and Si depletion, in the
surrounding metallic matrix next to it (Figure 8), and will further reduces HK-40 metal
dusting resistance as been reported elsewhere [44].
Formation of sigma phase in HK type alloy can occur directly from austenite in the range
760 to 871°C (1400 to 1600°F) particularly at the lower carbon level (0.20-0.30 percent),
and for this reason a substantial break up in properties at halfway temperatures is
observed for this grade [45]. Comparing other alloys, for instance, other alloys with
higher nickel, in the same environment would be beneficial. The higher the nickel the
more stable the austenitic structure, which imparts high temperature corrosion resistance.
In addition, nitrogen stabilizes austenite, which results in the control of sigma formation
[46], and at time resistance [47-49].
In this study, microstructural and mechanical properties changes in HK-40 subjected to
sigma-phase formation were characterized. As sigma-phase, at 850°C, precipitation and
142 A. M. Babakr, A. Al-Ahmari, K. Al-Jumayiah, F. Habiby Vol.7, No.2
growth advances, Cr and Si depletion, in the surrounding matrix next to it occur. This
resulted in a reduction in HK-40 sigma phase and high temperature properties resistance.
Silica was found in all parts of sigma phases analyzed. The hardness did not show very
much effect because of sigma phase, the increase was trivial. Sigma phase exhibited a
stable spheroid shape. In addition, the larger needle-like particles within the grains were
metallographically identified as sigma phase.
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