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60 Surface and Coatings Technology, 61(1993) 6066

Thermal barrier coating development for diesel engine aluminum pistons

P. M. Pierz
Cummins Engine Company, Mail Code 50160, P0 Box 3005, Columbus, IN 47202-3005 (USA)


Specific outputs of some diesel engine applications have produced thermal loadings in excess of the strength of typical aluminum-
piston alloys. Thermal barrier coatings are being evaluated to return the component durability to acceptable levels, as well as
providing a means of lowering heat rejection. This paper discusses the use of a finite element model to analyze these thermal barrier
coating systems, including the impact of material properties, coating thickness, residual stress and boundary conditions.
Given the resulting predicted temperatures and stresses, together with material strength information, the primary cause of coating
failure is proposed to be low cycle fatigue resulting from localized yielding when the coating is hot and in compression. This has been
confirmed with engine testing.

1. Introduction TABLE 1. Potential coating failure modes with key considerations

The demand for higher specific output diesel engines Failure mode Key consideration
and increasingly radical bowl geometries used to meet
Stress relaxation (creep) Maximum temperature and
legislated emission regulations has focused on the need time at temperature
for improvements in aluminum alloy pistons. At high
engine outputs, steel-crowned articulated pistons have High cycle fatigue Fluctuating stresses remaining
been substituted for aluminum pistons with great success in elastic region
because of the increased strength of steel at temperature. Low cycle fatigue Fluctuating stresses producing
However, articulated steel piston usage results in localized yielding
increased cost, increased reciprocating weight, increased
and in most cases precisely targeted oil cooling flow Brittle fracture Maximum and minimum
and, finally, some geometrical compromises, e.g. an offset stress including: tensile,
compressive shear and bond
piston bowl is not practical.
Given that the application of a thermal barrier coating Material phase change Maximum temperature and
to the aluminum piston crown results in a reduction in time at temperature
the substrate temperature, it may be possible to return
the aluminum piston to historic durability levels at the
higher engine output levels, unlike an aircraft turbine engine, where so much success
The intent of this investigation is to determine whether has been had with ceramic coatings, the duty cycle of
a finite element (FE) analysis can be used to provide the diesel engine rarely includes sustained operation at
accurate estimates of transient temperatures and stresses steady state conditions.
occurring within plasma-sprayed thermal barrier coat- Diesel fuel delivery into the cylinder is from a centrally
ings applied to an aluminum piston crown. The failure mounted multihole injector, metering up to 188 mm3
modes under consideration and key consideration are every second engine revolution at pressures up to
included in Table 1. 1586 bar. During the combustion event (lasting approxi-
mately 50 crank degrees, 0.0052 s at 1600 rev min1),
fuel in separate plumes travels across the open bowl and
2. Application burns as both a pre-mixed and diffusion-type flame.
Under high fuel rate conditions, there is significant
The particular application involves a state-of-the-art impingement of the burning fuel on the piston bowl rim,
heavy-duty in-line six-cylinder four-stroke diesel engine resulting in discrete hot spots at each of the plume
with a 125 mm bore and 136mm stroke. Commercial locations. It is in these impingement locations where
applications for this engine are considerably varied and, failures have occurred.

02578972/93/$6.00 1993 Elsevier Sequoia. All rights reserved

P. M. Pierz / Thermal barrier coating development for diesel engine Al pistons 61

The piston under consideration is a single-piece design grading of the material (between the bond coat and the
made from an aluminum alloy containing 12 wt.% Si pure ceramic) has dramatically improved the durability
and small additions of copper, magnesium and nickel, of the thicker coating systems. The thin coatings con-
The bowl geometry is shown in Fig. 1. tamed only a bond coat and a pure ceramic layer.

3. Coatings investigated 4. Flame rig and engine test results

Two plasma-sprayed coating materials, zirconia and 4.1. Flame rig results
mullite, were selected as candidate thermal barriers. The A screening test, based on the similarity of the flame
fully stabilized zirconia (20% Y is used as the stabilizing impingement occurring within an engine and that pro-
agent) was selected on the basis of its successes in aircraft duced with a simple torch, was established to determine
engine tip seals, while mullite was chosen on the basis the relative success of the different coating systems prior
of in-house experience. These two materials also repre- to engine test.
sent stark contrasts in general properties as depicted in The set-up involved the use of pre-mixed compressed
Table 2, making them excellent candidates for a compar- oxygen and natural gas being burned in a brazing torch
ative study. of 6.35 mm outside diameter and 2 mm inside diameter.
Two coating thicknesses, 0.40 and 1.5 mm, were tested. During the heating portion of the cycle, the torch was
The typical structure of the thicker coating included a rapidly moved to a position 50 mm above the rim of the
very thin metallic bond coat applied to the substrate, piston, held for 1 mm and then rapidly removed for
followed by discrete layers of mixed bond coat and another minute to complete the cycle. The cycle time
ceramic, followed by a layer of pure ceramic. This was constant for all tests.
The cooling of the top and sides of the piston consisted
~ of a gentle forced convection, and the underside of the
piston was cooled with a compressed air jet, which was
shut off during the heating portion of the cycle.
In-house experience has found this rig to predict
accurately the success and relative ranking of the
different coating systems when they are run in an engine;
this same result was documented in ref. 1. The results
obtained with the subject-coated pistons are included
in Table 3.
In all cases when a failure occurred, it consisted of a
radial crack(s) initiating at the coating surface in the
flame impingement area, and propagating both into the
thickness and radially (making the crack deeper and
longer). Ifa crack appeared, this was onsidered a failure
and the test was stopped. This type of failure initiation
is identical with those seen in engine-tested coated and
uncoated aluminum pistons.

4.2. Engine test results

On the basis of rig test results, thick and thin mullite,
and a thick zirconia coating were selected for engine
Fig. I. Solid model of piston bowl and fuel injection plumes. It also
includes a representation of the axisymmetric FE model at the end of
the center injection plume. TABLE 3. Comparison of number of cycles to coating failure on the
flame rig and in the engine
TABLE 2. Qualitative comparison of investigated material properties Thickness and Cycles before Cycles before
coating material initiation of first failure in the
Material Thermal Thermal Density Cost crack on the rig engine
conductivity expansion
Thin mullite >270 (no failure) >10000 (no failure)
Al High High Moderate Low Thick mullite 120180 1500 to >10000
Mullite Moderate Low Low Low Thin zirconia 120 Not tested
Zirconia Very low Moderate High High Thick zirconia 1 500
62 P. M. Pierz / Thermal barrier coating developmentfor diesel engine Al pistons

testing. These coatings were applied to pistons with the 5.1. Finite element model detail
crown machined so that, when the coating was applied, The model used represents an aluminum disk of
the original geometry would be restored. The results 25.4 mm diameter and 12.7 mm thick with a coating
from the engine testing are summarized below and are applied to the top surface. For the thin coating, the
also included in Table 3 for comparison with the rig model consists of 540 four-node isoparametric solid
test results, elements and, for the thick coating, 720 elements. The
(I) All coatings are intact after peak power operation element height was chosen to give at least three elements
(1600 rev mm 1; 230 kW; brake mean effective pressure, through the thickness of each coating layer, and a width
1.7 MPa; 3.36 x 106 firing cycles) for 70 h. which provides a good aspect ratio near the top and
(2) The thick zirconia piston failed after an additional center, the area of primary interest. Element sizes and
500 cycles between peak power and idle (3 mm at each aspect ratios increase with increased radius and depth,
condition). these being areas of less interest. Given the size of the
(3) The thick mullite piston failed after an additional element in the direction of the highest gradient, the
1000 cycles between over-fueled peak torque and idle thermal diffusivity of the coating, and the cycle time, the
(3 mm at each condition). This represents a very ther- FE software (ANSYS) recommended an integration time
mally abusive condition, step of 0.1 s requiring 600 iterations during each I mm
(4) No failures were experienced with the thin mullite. portion of the cycle. This reiterates the need for model
simplification. At this point, only an elastic solution was
considered, and stress relaxation (creep) was not
5. Thermal-barrier-coated piston analysis
5.2. Boundary conditions
Because of the low conductivity of the thermal barrier The physical constraints and thermal boundary condi-
coating (a hundredth that of the aluminum) and the tions applied to the model during both the heating and
localized loading of the fuel plumes, there now exists a the cooling cycle are depicted in Fig. 2. Measuring the
considerable circumferential gradient, making an axi- heat flux (in watts per square meter) inside a torch flame
symmetric assumption invalid. Also, because of the low almost identical with that being tested, Anderson and
specific heat, the coating surface is heated and cooled Stresino [6] found that it remained essentially constant
very rapidly, forcing consideration of transient effects for 4.6 mm and then dropped by two orders of magnitude
during the large changes in engine fueling, as well as over a 2.0 mm distance. Coincidentally, Wolf and Cheng
during an individual firing cycle [25].To account for [7] found the very same type of heat flux distribution
the lack of symmetry, a three-dimensional analysis with to be present for the impingement of a diesel fuel spray
appropriate asymmetric boundary conditions could be plume. To obtain the heat transfer coefficient as a
used; however, this would be impractical to sort through function of radius, an iterative process was used which
the many options required, especially considering a retained the shape of heat flux curve and matched the
transient solution. A much more sensible solution is to measured surface and substrate temperature for one of
analyze the fuel plume impingement area as a separate the coating systems. This process was carried out for
submodel. This area (Fig. 1) shows remarkable axisym- only one coating, and the resulting heat transfer coeffi-
metric qualities, making a two-dimensional axisymmetric cient and bulk temperature were applied to all coatings.
model a reasonable assumption. The resulting predicted surface temperatures matched
The ability of the rig test to produce engine-like the measured surface temperatures on the rig very well.
failures and to predict correctly the ranking of the The heat flux into the thin-mullite-coated piston is
coating systems when tested in the engine gives confi- plotted in Fig. 3. Note that, because the heat flux is the
dence that rig is an accurate, albeit simplified representa- product of the heat transfer coefficient and the difference
tion of the engine. Saving the complexity of modeling in temperature between the flame and the coating sur-
the heat transfer in a diesel engine spray plume for a face, the heat flux into the model will drop with increased
more detailed subsequent investigation, this model simu- surface temperature; this of course is how the coating
lates the impingement of a natural gas and oxygen torch provides insulation. Given the rapid application and
flame on the coated piston surface, Modeling the rig test removal of the heat, a step change in boundary condi-
also makes it possible to focus solely on the impact of tions was applied to the FE model,
the concentrated heat source with the resulting steep
temperature gradients, occurring not only in the circum- 5.3. Analysis results
ferential, but also in the through-the-thickness direction. With the presence of a free vertical edge at x =
Finally, the rig allows for the easy acquisition of temper- 12.7 mm, there exists the physical requirement that the
ature measurements for model correlation. stress (as) in the x direction be zero, and that the stress
P. M. Pierz / Thermal barrier coating development for diesel engine Al pistons 63

7.15E-4 1650

- V_ t - oOE
w <E
2.04E ~:
370 _ 1 .2E-4
Wmrme24q 27

_______________ ___________ _______________ 1.2E-4

__________________ _____________ I (W/nn21q _________________

_ _____________
_____________ 1 27
1 .2E-4 ~ _________________ I 27

~ I ______ _____ ______

1.2E-4 27 4.1E-4 27
~fu2.~ IC! ~/~2-~ IC]


1 Minute 1 Minute
Fig. 2. Physical and thermal boundary conditions on the two-dimensional axisymmetric FE model.

300 t~r
E 1000 [i.5mmZ/mouiu
900 I~ mm Mu/Ore
250-- ______
>< 800
350 ~ ~ 700 040mm ~uouia
600 0.40mm Mullhte
i~ 150-n ______
~ 500
! ~ 400
Bore A/umm~~

50 200

0~ 100
0 H---~--~--1---+
- ______

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100110120
Radial Distance Time [second]

Fig. 3. Heat flux into the surface of the 0.40 mm mullite coating as a Fig. 4. Predicted transient surface temperature response to the applica-
function of radius. tion and removal of the natural gas flame.

o~in the y direction is infinite owing to a mathematical

TABLE 4. Summary ofmodel temperatures and changes in heat flow
anomaly know as a singularmty. By staying sufficiently resulting from the addition of a surface coating
far away from the edge, and having a sufficient amount
of cool surrounding material to provide restraint, the Material Surface Interface Heat flow change
results of a submodel are least affected, Therefore, unless temperature temperature into surface
otherwise noted, all data will be reported from the (C) (C) (%)
position x = 0 mm.
The transient surface temperature profile is included Plain Al 330 330 Base
Thin mullite 530 300 10
in Fig. 4. Note the rapid heating and cooling for the Thin zirconia 700 265 19
coated pistons, as well as the increased surface temper- Thick mullite 820 260 26
ature, which result in the reduced heat flow into the Thick zirconia 985 215 34
piston. Given the reduced heat flow, a corresponding
drop in the temperature of the aluminum surface is also
experienced. The results are summarized in Table 4. engine operation, a one-dimensional FE analysis was
There is good correlation of the maximum surface performed using boundary conditions representative of
temperature predicted by the FE model, and that mea- the instantaneous in-cylinder conditions during the
sured by the pyrometer (within 10%). four-stroke cycle. These boundary conditions which
To determine whether these resulting surface temper- are shown in Fig. 5 were obtained from an in-house
atures are representative of peak temperatures in actual cycle simulation program. The resulting average and
64 P. M. Pierz / Thermal barrier coating development for diesel engine Al pistons

0.008 _____________ ______ -~---- 2000

0.007 . ~ 111111 zi~: III 111111 1111 JIII1IIIII~

~00O6\\~~ 1500

_______ __ I

0000 -~ ~~----~ 0 0
0 ~ ~ ~ . . ~ . . ~ 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10111213
c~ Radial Distance [mm]
Time [second]
Fig. 6. Predicted surface temperature as a function of radius at the
Fig. 5. Predicted instantaneous values of in-cylinder heat transfer end of the heating cycle
coefficient and bulk temperature during a single firing cycle.

extremes for the coating surface temperature are shown ~

in Table 5. It is important to note that, while significant, ~5
these large changes in temperature are experienced only ~ 350 -

within a small fraction of a millimeter of the surface. ~

The coatingsubstrate interface remains at a steady ~~
temperature throughout the cycle. 200
There is excellent agreement between the temperatures ~ 150
measu red on the rig, and those predicted as the maxi- ~ 100
mum when operating in an engine Note that this ~ ~
analysis was done before engine or rig testing to resist ~ 50 ~~--________ __________ ~

the temptation to adjust boundary conditions to match 0 10 20 30

40 50 60 70 80 90 100 110 120
measured results. The rig thus represents the worst-case Time [second]
engine temperature situation. Fig. 7. Predicted temperature difference between the surface of the
To see the impact of the insulation on the circumferen- 0.40 mm zirconia coating and the aluminum interface throughout the
tial temperature gradient in the actual piston, the pre- heating and cooling cycle.
dicted surface temperature from the center out to the
free edge is shown in Fig. 6. cation to the piston. This residual stress results from the
Figure 7 details the difference between the temperature thermal expansion of the substrate during the spraying
of the surface of the thin zirconia coating and that of operation, a time when the coating is in an essentially
the substrate during the heating and the cooling cycles, stress-free state. Upon returning to room temperature,
Because the surface heats and cools so rapidly, a signifi- the coating goes into compression, and the substrate
cant transient spike occurs during both the heating and into tension. The significance of this residual compressive
the cooling cycle, this is typical of all the coated parts. stress becomes apparent when considering the stress
It is during this time when stresses are of particular cycle experienced by the surface. The residual stress is
interest, represented in the FE model by applying an elevated
A very important and often neglected part of the reference temperature from which all thermal expansions
analysis is to account for the amount of residual corn- will be calculated.
pressive stress present in the coating following its appli- Figure 8 contains the rr~stress at the surface during
the entire cycle (on the basis of model geometry, a~
TABLE 5. Predicted coating surface temperatures experienced during would produce a radial crack). Note the large transient
four-stroke cycle at full power stress peaks, which are considerably higher than the
steady state values, especially in the thin coated parts.
Material Average Maximum Minimum The non-coated part has no such peak. These peaks
surface surface surface
temperature temperature temperature correspond to the occurrence of the maximum difference
(C) (CC) (C) between the temperatures of the surface and the sub-
strate, At the start of the cycle the surface is heated and
Thin zirconia 500 720 480 expands prior to the substrate, producing the compres-
Thick mullite 570 880 540 sive stress in the surface. Adding to this compressive
Thick zirconia 700 940 630 ,
________________________________________________________ stress is the large temperature gradient between the
P. M. Pierz / Thermal barrier coating development for diesel engine Al pistons 65

4 Heating ) 4 Cooling - the thin coatings usint~both cycle averaoe and instantan-
50 - - C .i

____________ eous boundary conditions are included in Table 6

~i8~ ~ 040 e,mM /1/

X I5mmM/// 6 Conclusions

~ 200 040 mmz I (1) The application of a thermal barrier coating is

-250 - - predicted to result in a significant reduction in the heat
o [/5 mm Zirum,ie I , .

~ -300 flux into a piston, as well as a significant reduction in

-________ ____________________________ substrate temperature.
-350 0 10 20 3040 50 60 70 80 90 100 110 120 (2) The application of a thermal barrier coating to
Time [second] the crown of a direct injection diesel engine piston
greatly exaggerates the circumferential gradient present,
Fig. 8. Predicted coating surface stress in the x direction throughout making an axisymmetric analysis of the whole piston
the heating and cooling cycle, crown inaccurate.
(3) Use of cycle average boundary conditions will
significantly underpredict the maximum coating surface
center and the edge. Later in the cycle, as additional temperature; therefore instantaneous values of in-
heat flows into the substrate, it too expands, offsetting cylinder heat flux should be used.
the compressive stress. During the cooling cycle, the (4) While the coating surface experiences a significant
exact opposite happens; the surface cools more rapidly temperature fluctuation during the four-stroke cycle, its
than the substrate, causing the surface to go rapidly into primary impact is on maximum coating temperature
tension. As the substrate cools, the stress returns to a and not on high cycle fatigue.
more steady state condition. The significance of the (5) During large changes in engine fueling (simulated
residual stress can now been seen, as this has the effect by the application and removal of the flame on the rig
of shifting this curve up and down. The movement of test), the coating experiences significant transient spikes
this curve directly impacts the predicted maximum, in surface stress. Considering only the steady state end
minimum and mean stress, points would result in a significant underestimation of
Another effect of the transient temperature spike is an the stress extremes.
upward arching of the coating. This is because the outer (6) The stress cycle results from the mismatch in
layers heat and grow faster than the lower layers, making coating and substrate thermal growth. This growth is
them longer and producing an upward arch. In the the product of the thermal expansion coefficient and the
process there is a pulling of the coating in the y direction, incremental change in temperature, and it is this parame-
attempting to produce a delamination. The resulting ter that should be considered when choosing a material
predicted a~at the interfaces was very small, on the and thickness,
order of 2 MPa. (7) Compared with mullite, zirconia has a lower ther-
mal conductivity, and a larger thermal expansion
5.4. Analysis results assuming whole piston symmetry and coefficient (65% and + 120% respectively), giving zir-
cycle average boundary conditions conia comparatively higher surface temperatures and
Modeling of a non-coated aluminum piston typically larger thermal strains. The larger thermal strain in the
involves the use of a two-dimensional axisymmetric zirconia results in larger mean (in absolute terms) and
cross-section of a piston with boundary conditions vary- alternating stresses than mullite, given the same bound-
ing around the perimeter [8]. The combustion face
boundary conditions used (heat transfer coefficient and
bulk temperature) represent an average over the four- TABLE 6. Comparison of the maximum coating temperature and
stroke cycle (two crankshaft revolutions) and are con- minimum surface stress in the x direction using the cycle average and
siderably lower than the peak heat flux which occurs instantaneous boundary conditions
during combustion (Fig. 5). With the use of an axisymme-
tric model of the whole piston crown, the applied Matenal Cycle average , Instantaneous
boundary conditions boundary conditions
boundary conditions are taken as constant around the _________________ _______________

circumference. Temperature Stress Temperature Stress

If these boundary conditions were used to model the (C) (MPa) (C) (MPa)
aforementioned coatings, a significant underestimation .

of the peak temperatures and stresses would result. For Thin mullite 450 110 540 131
Thin zirconia 505 152 720 245
comparison, the temperatures and stresses predicted for _____________________________________________________
66 P. M. Pierz / Thermal barrier coating development for diesel engine Al pistons

ary conditions. For this reason, the mullite coating will 375, sponsored by the US Department of Energy and
be more durable than the zirconia in this application, administered by the NASA Lewis Research Center. The
(8) During large and rapid changes in engine fueling, author gratefully acknowledges the support provided.
the maximum and minimum stresses predicted at the The author also wishes to acknowledge the significant
coating surface of the zirconia are large enough to cause contributions of Mr. Thomas Yonushonis, Mr. A. Carl
failure by low cycle thermal fatigue. Low cycle fatigue McDonald (Cummins Engine Company), Mr. Klod
results from a small amount of yielding in compression Kokini, Ms. Yoshimi Takeuchi (Purdue University) and
on every cycle, followed by a ratcheting up of the tensile Mr. Michael Bak (United Technologies Research
stresses (the coating becomes shorter with each succes- Center).
sive cycle) until the tensile strength of the coating is
exceeded, and a crack initiates,
(9) The residual stress present in the coating following
spraying is very important for controlling the maximum References
and minimum stresses. There are, however, practical
limits to the amount of pre-heating that can be done to 1 I. Kvernes, In-service performance of ceramic and metallic coatings
the substrate before damage occurs. Too much residual in diesel engines, SAE Paper 860888, 1986, Society of Automotive
stress has even resulted in the failure of coating when it Engineers, New York.
2 T. Morel, R. Keribar and P. N. Blumberg, Cyclic thermal phenomena
was cooled following spraying.
in engine combustion chamber surfaces, SAE Paper 850360, 1985,
(10) The predicted interface stresses are low and are Society of Automotive Engineers, New York.
not likely the primary failure mode. However, as deter- 3 D. N. Assanis and E. Badillo, Transient heat conduction in low-
mined by Takeuchi and Kokini [9], these stresses may heat-rejection engine combustion chambers, SAE Paper 870156,
increase in the presence of a surface crack. 1987, Society of Automotive Engineers, New York.
4 J. C. Huang and G. L. Borman, Measurements of instantaneous
(11) The maximum predicted coating temperatures do heat flux to metal and ceramic surfaces in a diesel engine, SAE
not appear to be high enough, nor are the peak temper- Paper 870155, 1987, Society of Automotive Engineers, New York.
atures present long enough, for a significant amount of 5 D. N. Assanis, F. A. Friedman, K. L. Weise, M. J. Zaluzec and J. M.
stress relaxation to occur. Material phase changes are Rigsbee, A prototype thin-film thermocouple for transient heat
also unlikely at these temperatures. transfer measurements in ceramic-coated combustion chambers,
SAE Paper 900691, 1990, Society of Automotive Engineers, New
(12) An FE analysis such as that completed above York.
appears to model accurately the behavior of coated 6 J. E. Anderson and E. F. Stresino, Heat transfer from flames
pistons and, together with material strength and fatigue impinging on flat and cylindrical surfaces, J. Heat Transfer, 85
properties, can be used to predict relative life. However, (1963) p. 4954.
modeling of the actual piston geometry, together with 7 R. S. Wolf and W. K. Cheng, Heat transfer characteristics of
impinging diesel sprays, SAE Paper 890439, 1989, Society of
the best estimates of in-cylinder boundary conditions Automotive Engineers, New York.
including cylinder pressure effects, is a required next step. 8 J. Manoel and M. Leites, Heat flow in an articulated piston, SAE
Paper 891896, 1989, Society of Automotive Engineers, New York.
9 Y. R. Takeuchi and K. Kokini, Thermal fracture of multilayer
Acknowledgments ceramic thermal barrier coatings, ASME Paper 92-GT-318, 1992,
American Society for Mechanical Engineers, New York.

This work has been carried out under the In-Cylinder

Components Development Program, Contract DEN3-