Steel grades are engineered to achieve specific properties and characteristics by the manipulation of mill processing parameters to achieve a targeted balance of microstructural components. Among the tools available to the steelmaker are alloy composition, rolling and processing temperatures, and cooling profile.
If steel is slowly cooled, only two components exist at room temperature: ferrite (abbreviated by the Greek letter α) and cementite (iron carbide, Fe3C). Alternating layers of ferrite and cementite appear under a microscope in a pattern similar to Mother-of-Pearl, leading to the term pearlite.
A steel alloy having approximately 0.80% carbon will contain only pearlite in the microstructure. Lower carbon levels create an alloy that combines ferrite and pearlite. Ferrite-pearlite microstructures form the basis of many C-Mn steels and some of the initial HSLA steels. At a given strength level, pearlite limits sheet formability.
At carbon levels below 0.008% or 80 ppm, only ferrite exists. Ferrite is low strength but very ductile, and is the microstructural phase in ultra-low carbon steels.
Additional phases are formed when the cooling profile can be changed. Some modern annealing furnaces are capable of controlling the cooling rate as well as holding at specific temperatures. This ability is a key facilitator in the production of most Advanced High Strength Steels. In addition to ferrite and pearlite, microstructural phases of bainite, austenite, and martensite can be produced, depending on the chemistry and the thermal cycle profile including quench rate and hold temperature.
Bainite is a phase that is associated with enhanced sheared edge ductility. Accelerated cooling in the hot mill run out table allows for the production of Ferrite-Bainite steels.
Austenite is not stable at room temperature under equilibrium conditions. An austenitic microstructure is retained at room temperature with the use of a combined chemistry and controlled thermal cycle. Deforming retained austenite is responsible for the TRIP effect.
Martensite is a very high strength phase, but has limited toughness. Steels with both ferrite and martensite in the microstructure are known as dual phase steels. A structure of 100% martensite can be produced directly at those sheet mills having equipment capable of achieving a minimum critical cooling rate. The ductility of this product is not sufficiently high for most stamping operations. However, sheet martensite is well suited for properly designed roll forming applications.
Martensite is the microstructural component of processed Press Hardening Steels. An elevated temperature and a more formable microstructure exist at the time of complex forming of these grades. Rapid cooling while the part is under full press load converts the microstructure to the high strength martensite.