When it comes to metal aging, the simplest way to understand the process is in terms of heat. In general, if a metal has the ability to withstand high temperatures during heat treatment, then it can be aged. For alloys containing aluminum, copper, magnesium or nickel, aging is the principal method of strengthening the finished product.
When metal is exposed to heat, any impurities (precipitates) contained within it begin to form on the surface. These precipitates help to prevent dislocations, which are defects in the metal’s crystal structure. Because dislocations are a primary cause of metal weakness, this means the precipitates are acting as reinforcements to strengthen the metal. Aging it has made the material stronger, more stable, and more resistant. So it’s clear why accelerating these changes through artificial aging is a popular choice!
The basic process of precipitation hardening, or age-hardening, consists of three steps:
- Solution treatment: Also known as “solutionizing”, this involves heating a metal alloy to extremely high temperatures. This mix creates a solution, where the alloying material is suspended within the liquid base metal. More importantly, it dissolves the precipitates and helps disperse these particles evenly throughout the solution.
- Quenching: Once an alloy solution has been created, the liquid metal is then cooled as quickly as possible. This quenching can be done using compressed air, oil, water, or brine. Whatever the method used, the aim is to “flash freeze” the metal so that the solid is as evenly-mixed as the solution. The faster it can be cooled, the less time the precipitates have to form on its surface.
- Aging: The metal is heated again, although to a lower temperature to avoid any dissolving. Applying heat a second time ensures the precipitates within the metal are evenly dispersed. Afterwards the heated metal item is quenched a final time.
However, there are risks involved with heat treatment. Over-aging occurs when the metal is held too long at too high a temperature. This can result in uneven disbursement of precipitates in solution, which leads to cracking and distortion in the cooled product. When monitored carefully throughout the age-hardening process, metal alloys that have completed these steps will be a harder, stronger material.