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Aluminum 5456-H116 has high as-welded strength, is formable, and highly corrosion resistant, however, it can become sensitized when exposed to elevated temperatures for a prolonged time. Sensitization results in the formation of a continuous β phase at the grain boundaries that is anodic to the matrix. Thus the grain boundaries become susceptible to stress corrosion cracking (SCC) and intergranular corrosion cracking (IGC). Cracking issues on aluminum superstructures have prompted the use of a severe plastic deformation processes, such as ultrasonic impact treatment (UIT), to improve SCC resistance. This study correlated the effects of UIT on the properties of 5456-H116 alloy to the microstructural evolution of the alloy and helped develop a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms that cause the microstructural evolution.

Ultrasonic impact treatment produces a deformed layer at the surface ~ 10 to 18 µm thick that is characterized by micro-cracks, tears, and voids. Ultrasonic impact treatment results in grain refinement within the deformation layer and extending below the deformed layer. The microstructure exhibits weak crystallographic texture with larger fraction of high angle grain boundaries.

Nanocrystalline grains within the deformation layer vary in size from 2 to 200 nm in diameter and exhibit curved or wavy grain boundaries. The nanocrystalline grains are thermally stable up to 300°C. Above 300°C, grain growth occurs with an activation energy of ~ 32 kJ/mol. Below the deformation layer, the microstructure is characterized by submicron grains, complex structure of dislocations, sub-boundaries, and Moiré fringes depicting overlapping grains. The deformation layer does not exhibit the presence of a continuous β phase, however below the deformation layer; a continuous β phase along the grain boundaries is present.

In general the highest hardness and yield strength is at the UIT surface which is attributed to the formation of nanocrystalline grains. Although the highest hardness and yield strength was observed at the UIT surface, the results were mixed with some lower values. The lower hardness and yield strength values at the UIT surface are attributed to the voids and micro cracking/micro voids observed in the deformation layer. The fracture mode was transgranular ductile fracture with micro void coalescence and dimples. Both UIT and untreated material exhibit similar levels of intergranular corrosion susceptibility. Corrosive attack was intergranular with slightly deeper attack in the untreated material.

Numerical simulation modeling showed that the calculated residual stress under the tool, ~80 MPa, is of the same order of magnitude as the compressive residual stresses measured by XRD measurements near the surface. Modeling also showed that high effective strains were induced almost immediately. The UIT process also resulted in rapid localized heating to a maximum temperature of ~32°C during the first eleven pin tool cycles. The model also showed that during UIT processing, the material undulates as the pin tool impacts and retracts from the surface of the material. The undulations represent the elastic response of the surface to the compressive stresses built up during a pin tool cycle.