Materials Sciences and Applications, 2010, 1, 217-222
doi:10.4236/msa.2010.14034 Published Online October 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. MSA
Nanoindentation Study of Al356-Al2O3
Nanocomposite Prepared by Ball Milling
Yousef Mazaheri, Fathallah Karimzadeh*, Mohammad-Hosein Enayati
Department of Materials Engineering, Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials Institute (NAMI), Isfahan University of Technology,
Isfahan, Iran.
Received May 4th, 2010; revised May 31st, 2010; accepted June 6th, 2010.
In this study ball milling of Al356 and Al2O3 powder mixture was carried out in order to produce Al356-Al2O3 nano-
composite containing 20 vol.% Al2O3. The structural evolution and morphological changes of powder particles during
ball milling were studied by X-ray diffractometery and scanning electron microscopy analysis. As a result of ball mill-
ing Al2O3 particles were uniformly dispersed in Al356 matrix. Furthermore the crystallite size of the Al356 decreased to
25 nm after ball milling for 10 h. Morphological studies of powder particles indicated that the powder particle size con-
tinuously decreases with increasing milling time. Hardness and elastic modulus values of powder particles were meas-
ured by nanoindentation method. It was found that the hardness and elastic modulus of Al356-20 vol.% Al2O3 nano-
composite were about 216 Hv and 86 GPa, respectively which is higher than 75 Hv and 74 GPa for as-received Al356.
Keywords: Al-Al2O3 Nanocomposite, Nanocrystalline Structure, Ball Milling, Nanoindentation
1. Introduction
Metal matrix composites (MMCs) are under attention for
many applications in aerospace, defense, and automobile
industries. These materials have been considered for us-
ing in automobile brake rotors and various components
in internal combustion engines because of its high streng-
th/weight ratio and wear resistance [1]. Al is the most
popular matrix for MMCs because of its low density,
good corrosion resistance and high thermal and electrical
conductivity [2,3]. Conventional Al matrix composites
(AMCs) reinforced with ceramic particulates, especially
Al2O3 exhibit high strength, hardness and elastic modulus
AMCs have been widely studied since the 1920s [2].
A survey of the previous studies indicates that a ho-
mogenous dispersion of fine particles in a fine grained
matrix is beneficial to the mechanical properties of
MMCs [5-10]. The use of Al-Al2O3 has been limited due
to high processing cost [11]. Solid state processes such as
ball milling (BM) can be readily used to fabricate
Al-Al2O3 composite with improved properties [12]. For
instance; Tavoosi et al. [13] used high energy BM to
prepare Al-Al2O3 nanocomposite and showed that the
hardness and wear resistance increased with increasing
Al2O3 content of the nanocomposites. BM is well recog-
nized as a potential method for achieving better disper-
sion of reinforcing particles in the matrixes of micro- and
nanocomposites. The BM process involves repeated plas-
tic deformation, welding and fracture of powder particles
[4]. Addition of ceramic reinforcements into a ductile
matrix has a great effect on the structural evolution dur-
ing BM. Although there have been several research stud-
ies about the effect of milling parameters, such as ball
sizes, number of balls and milling time on the micro-
structure of Al-Al2O3 composites , for example [1,14-18],
the effect of nanocrystalline structure reinforced with
ceramic particulates on properties of Al-Al2O3 nano-
composites is not well investigated yet. The objective of
the present work is to investigate the properties of mi-
crometric Al2O3 reinforced Al356 matrix composite pre-
pared by BM technique. The addition of Al2O3 particles
to residual machining chips of Al356 display an effective
cost saving in this work.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Samples Preparation
Residual machining chips of A356 aluminum alloy (Al356)
and α-Al2O3 powder with purity of 99% were used as
starting materials. Table 1 lists chemical analysis of the
Al356 chips. Figure 1 shows scanning electron micros-
Nanoindentation Study of Al356-Al2O3 Nanocomposite Prepared by Ball Milling
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. MSA
(a) (b)
Figure 1. SEM images of as-received materials. (a) Al356 chips; (b) Al2O3 powder particles.
Table 1. Chemical composition of Al356 chips.
Element Al Si Mg Fe Mn Cu Ti
(wt. %) Rem 7.44 0.440.26 0.07 0.050.02
copy micrographs of as-received materials. Al356 chips
were irregular in shape with a size distribution of 200-
300 μm and Al2O3 powder particles had an angular shape
with a size distribution of 100-200 μm.
The Al356 chips and Al2O3 powder particles were
mixed to achieve Al356-20 vol. % Al2O3 composition.
BM was carried out in a high energy planetary ball mill
(PM 100), nominally at room temperature and under Ar
atmosphere. The milling media consisted of twenty 20
mm diameter balls confined in a 500 ml volume vial. The
ball and vial materials were hardened chromium steel.
Ball to powder weight ratio and rotation speed of vial
was 6:1 and 300 rpm, respectively. The total powder
mass was 100 gr and 0.3 wt. % stearic acid was added as
a process control agent (PCA).
2.2. Analysis Techniques
Samples were taken at selected time intervals and char-
acterized by X-ray diffraction (XRD) in a Philips XPERT
MPD diffractometer using filtered Cu Kα radiation (λ =
0.1542 nm). Morphology and microstructure of powder
particles were characterized by scanning electron mi-
croscopy (SEM) in a Philips XL30.
The crystallite size and lattice strain of powders were
estimated using the Williamson-Hall method by follow-
ing equation [19]:
cos2 sin
 (1)
where θ is the Bragg diffraction angle, D the crystallite
size, ε the average internal strain, λ the wave length of
the radiation used, β the diffraction peak width at half
maximum intensity, K the Scherrer constant (0.9) and A
is the coefficient which depends on the distribution of
strain; it is near to unity for dislocations.
2.3. Nanoindentation Method
Depth sensing indentation (DSI) is commonly referred to
as nanoindentation since the technique usually operates in
the submicron depth range with nanometer resolution
[20-24]. DSI differs from classical hardness measure-
ments (Vickers, Brinell and Knoop), where the impres-
sions are first generated, and then imaged using a mi-
croscopy technique. The nanoindentation test involves
indenting a specimen with a very low load using a high
precision instrument, which records the load and penetra-
tion depth continuously. The mechanical properties can
be derived from the measured load-penetration depth
curves under loading/unloading through appropriate data
analysis. Figure 2 shows a typical load-penetration depth
curve obtained in a nanoindentation test. The peak in-
dentation depth is denoted by hm and includes elastic and
plastic deformation. The depth at which the applied loads
become zero on unloading is the final indentation depth
hf and represents the plastic deformation. S represents the
contact stiffness measured during the first moments of
the unload operation. S = dF/dh is the slope of the tan-
gent of the load-penetration depth curve during the un-
loading cycle. The depth hc is the contact depth at which
the cross-section area Ap is taken to calculate hardness
The contact depth hc and the hardness are calculated by
a standard procedure according to the method of Oliver
and Pharr [26]; hc can be written as:
 (2)
Nanoindentation Study of Al356-Al2O3 Nanocomposite Prepared by Ball Milling
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. MSA
Figure 2. Load versus penetration depth curve obtained
from a nanoindentation test.
Knowing hc, Ap is calculated. The instrumented hard-
ness HIT is determined from peak load Fm and projected
area Ap of contact as:
Whereas the Vickers hardness HV is calculated from
the developed area Ad:
The difference between an instrumented hardness and
Vickers hardness resides in definition of the contact area
between the indenter and the tested material.
A reduced modulus, EIT
*, is used to account for the fact
that the elastic displacements occur in both the indenter
and the sample. This reduced elastic modulus can be
linked to the measured stiffness S by the relation:
Knowing S and Ap, EIT
* is calculated.
The instrumented elastic modulus in the test material,
EIT, is determined by the relation:
where ν is the Poisson’s ratio for the sample, Ei and νi are
the elastic modulus and Poisson’s ratio, respectively, of
the indenter.
The hardness and elastic modulus of Al356 and Al356-
Al2O3 composite was evaluated from the load-penetration
depth curves obtained in nanoindentation tests using a
nanoindentation tester (NHTX S/N: 01-03119, CSM In-
struments) with a Berkovich diamond indenter (B-J87).
The elastic constants Ei = 1141 GPa and νi = 0.07 are
often used for a diamond indenter [27]. The indentation
was made to a maximum load of about 70 mN and under
loading and unloading rate of 140 mN/min. In order to
take the repeatability into account, the test results were
acquired from the average of four indentations.
3. Results and Discussion
3.1. Structural Evolution
Figure 3 shows XRD patterns of Al356 and Al2O3 powder
mixture at different milling times. As can be seen with
increasing milling times the intensity of Al356 and Al2O3
diffraction peaks decreases and their width increases
progressively as a result of refinement of crystallite size
and enhancement of lattice strain. With increasing milling
time the brittle particles (Al2O3) are uniformly dispersed
in the ductile matrix (Al356) [28].
The variation of Al356 crystallite size and lattice strain
as a function of milling time is shown in Figure 4. As
can be seen in Figure 4(a), with increasing milling time
Al crystallite size gradually redused reaching a value of
25 nm after 10 h of milling time. Moreover, the lattice
strain induced by milling increased up to 0.43% (Figure
4(b)). The crystallite size of the Al2O3 particles was
calculated to be about 60 nm after 10h of milling time.
SEM images of powder particles at different milling
times are shown in Figure 5. As seen after 2 h of milling
time the powder particles had a flake morphology. with
increasing milling time the powder particles size decreased
to 10-20 μm due to the predominance of the fracturing of
powder particles over the cold welding process. Also
flake morphology changed to equeiaxed morphology with
Figure 3. XRD patterns of Al356 and Al2O3 powder mixture
at different milling times.
Nanoindentation Study of Al356-Al2O3 Nanocomposite Prepared by Ball Milling
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. MSA
Figure 4. The variation of (a) Al356 crystallite size; (b) lat-
tice strain as a function of milling time.
increasing milling time. At longer milling times the pow-
der particles were more uniform in size compared to the
early stages of milling. The larger particles at longer
milling times appeared to be an agglomaration of many
smaller particles.
3.2. Nanoindentation Profile
Figure 6 shows the load-penetration depth curves ob-
tained from nanoindentation test of as-received Al356
and Al356-20 vol.% Al2O3 nanocomposite after 10 h of
milling times. The difference in hardness of the materials
is apparent from the large difference in the peak depth.
The data obtained from the analysis of load/unload curve,
are given in Table 2. Hardness and elastic modulus val-
ues of Al356-Al2O3 nanocomposite showed consider-
able increase compared with Al356.
The possible strengthening mechanisms which may
operate in particle-reinforced MMCs [29]:
1) Orowan strengthening.
2) Grain and substructure strengthening.
3) Quench hardening resulting from the dislocations
generated to accommodate the differential thermal con-
traction between the reinforcing particles and the matrix.
4) Work hardening, due to the strain misfit between
Table 2. The results obtained from nanoindentation tests.
Fm 70.28 70.23 mN
hm 2066 1279 nm
hf 1625 702 nm
S 0.20680.2353 mN/nm
hc 1811 1062 nm
Ap 8.7 ×
107 3 × 107 nm²
HIT 807 2334 MPa
HV 75 216 Vickers
EIT 74 86 GPa
Epsilon 0.75 0.73
the elastic reinforcing particles and the plastic matrix.
According to the characteristics of the microstructure,
the better mechanical properties of Al356-Al2O3 nano-
composite can be attributed to 1) the nano grain size of
the Al matrix following the classical Hall-Petch rela-
tionship, and 2) the Orowan strengthening due to the fine
dispersion of Al2O3 particles. Rule of mixtures can be
applied to calculate the hardness and elastic modulus of
Al356-Al2O3 nanocomposite [30]:
Hc, Hm, and Hr, show the hardness of the composite,
matrix and reinforcement, respectively. Ec, Em, and Er,
show the elastic modulus of the composite, matrix and
reinforcement, respectively. Fm and Fr are fractional
volumes of matrix and reinforcement. Nanoindentation
results show that the addition of 20vol. % Al2O3 in Al356
matrix increased the hardness and elastic modulus from
75 Hv and 74 GPa to 216 Hv and 86 GPa, respectively.
Nanoindentation tests showed that hardness and elastic
modulus of Al2O3 were about 880 Hv and 150 GPa, re-
spectively [31]. Taking the data in Table 2 for HAl356 (75
Hv), EAl356 (74 GPa) and FAl356 (0.8), FAl2O3 (0.2), equa-
tion 7 and 8 give Hc = 236 Hv and Ec = 89.2 GPa, which
are in good agreement with the experimental values of
216 Hv and 86 GPa, respectively.
4. Conclusions
Ex-situ Al356-Al2O3 nanocomposite was produced by
ball milling process. Structural evolution indicated that
as a result of ball milling the Al2O3 particles are uni-
formly dispersed in ductile Al356 matrix. Crystallite size
Nanoindentation Study of Al356-Al2O3 Nanocomposite Prepared by Ball Milling
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. MSA
(a) (b)
(c) (d)
Figure 5. SEM images of powder particles after (a) 2 h, (b) 5 h, (c) 7 h and (d) 10 h of milling times.
Figure 6. Load versus penetration depth curves of Al356
and Al356-20 vol.% Al2O3 nanocomposite as-milled for 10 h.
of Al matrix was 25 nm after 10 h of milling time. This
microstructure led to a remarkable improvement of me-
chanical characteristics so that, for instance, the hardness
and elastic modulus of Al356-20vol.% Al2O3 powder
increased to 216 Hv and 86GPa, respectively.
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