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Aluminum-Silicon Alloys

Castings are the main use of aluminum-silicon alloys, although some sheet or wire is
made for welding and brazing, and some of the piston alloys are extruded for forging
stock. Often the brazing sheet has only a cladding of aluminum-silicon alloy and the core
consists of some other high melting alloy.

The copper-free alloys are used for low- to medium-strength castings with good corrosion
resistance; the copper-bearing for medium- to high-strength castings, where corrosion
resistance is not critical. Because of their excellent castability, it is possible to produce
reliable castings, even in complex shapes, in which the minimum mechanical properties
obtained in poorly fed sections are higher than in castings made from higher-strength but
lower-castability alloys. The alloys of this group fall within the composition limits:

Si 5-25% Mn, Cr, Co, Mo Ni, Be, Zr up to 3%

Cu 0-5% Fe up to 3%
Mg 0-2% Na, Sr < 0.02%
Zn 0-3% P < 0.01%

Silicon is the main alloying element; it imparts high fluidity and low shrinkage, which
result in good castability and weldability. The low thermal expansion coefficient is
exploited for pistons, the high hardness of the silicon particles for wear resistance. The
maximum amount of silicon in cast alloys is of the order of 22-24% Si, but alloys made
by powder metallurgy may go as high as 40-50% Si.

Sodium or strontium produces the ’modification’ and phosphorus nucleates the silicon to
permit of a fine distribution of the primary crystals. Iron is the main impurity and in most
alloys efforts are made to keep it as low as economically possible, because of its
deleterious effects on ductility and corrosion resistance. In sand castings and permanent
mold castings the upper limit is usually 0.6-0.7% Fe. In some piston alloys iron may be
added deliberately and in die-castings up to 3% Fe may be tolerated.

Cobalt, chromium, manganese, molybdenum and nickel are sometimes added as

correctives for iron; their addition also improves strength at high temperature. Copper is
added to increase the strength and fatigue resistance without loss of castability, but at
the expense of corrosion resistance. Magnesium, especially after heat treatment,
increases substantially the strength, but at the expense of ductility.

Zinc is a tolerated impurity in many alloys, often up to 1.5-2% Zn, because it has no
substantial effect on room-temperature properties. Titanium and boron are sometimes
added as grain refiners, although grain size in these alloys is not too important, because
the properties are mainly controlled by the amount and structure of the silicon, as
affected by modification produced by sodium additions or by phosphorus additions.

A distinction between dissolved and ’graphitic’ silicon is sometimes made by dissolving

the alloy in acids, in which the dissolved silicon transforms in SiO2 whereas the graphitic
remains uncombined. Prolonged or repeated heating tends to spheroidise the silicon. This
spheroidising is faster in modified alloys and results in a coarsening of the silicon to a
size very close to that of non modified material. In the absence of copper the iron is
usually in the Al-FeSiAl5-Si eutectic as thin platelets interspread with the silicon needles
or rods. If there is more than 0.8% Fe, primary FeSiAl5, crystals appear.
Titanium and boron are usually added in amounts well within their solid solubility and do
not form any separate phase. Iron reduces their solubility, so that less is needed for
grain refinement; 0.1-0.2% V is reported to refine the FeMn compounds. Tin and lead, if
present together with magnesium, tend to enter the Mg2Si phase. All the phases formed
tend to concentrate at the grain boundaries, in the form of complex eutectics, more or
less coupled.

The lattice parameter is decreased slightly by silicon in solution and somewhat more
by copper; none of the other elements affects it appreciably. Thus, the parameter of the
alloys is between a = 4.045 x 10-10m and a = 4.05 x 10-10m, depending on composition
and treatment.

Thermal expansion is reduced substantially by silicon and much less pronouncedly by

all other additions except magnesium, which tends to increase it slightly. Expansion
coefficients at subzero temperatures also are some 10-20% lower than those for pure
aluminum. A reduction of expansion coefficient by titanium and zirconium additions is
reported, but it is very doubtful that it can be appreciable. Alloys produced by powder
metallurgy containing up to 50% Si have even lower expansion coefficients. Permanent
expansion accompanies precipitation out of solution of silicon, magnesium and copper;
the amount varies but maybe as high as 0.15%.

Thermal conductivity is of the order of 1.2-1.6 x 10-2W/m/K, the lower values being for
the alloys cast in metallic molds or heat treated to retain silicon, copper or magnesium in

Electric conductivity depends mostly on the amount of silicon in solution; copper and
magnesium also affect it. Values of the order of 35-40% IACS for annealed materials and
of 22-35% IACS for solution treated alloys are reported. In the liquid state resistivity is
some 10-15 times the resistivity at room temperature. Manganese, chromium, titanium,
zirconium also reduce conductivity, and so does modification.

Magnetic susceptibility is only slightly decreased by silicon, copper and magnesium,

but depends mostly on manganese content.

Mechanical properties. Alloys prepared from powders exhibit somewhat higher

strengths, especially at elevated temperatures. In wrought products ultimate tensile
strengths of 200-400 MPa, with elongation correspondingly from 20 to 2-3% are
obtained. Poor casting technique may reduce the properties, although the aluminum-
silicon alloys are among the least sensitive to such variables as gas content, design of
castings, rate of cooling and feeding. High purity find special treatments can produce
properties some 10-20% better than average, and, conversely, secondary alloys tend to
have lower ductility than do primary ones. Casting under pressure improves properties
toward those of forgings.

Increasing silicon content increases strength at the expense of ductility, but this effect is
not very marked. Modification by sodium produces a limited increase of strength, but the
increase of ductility is substantial, especially in sand castings. At the higher cooling rates,
normal with metal mold castings, the silicon is already somewhat refined without
modification and the improvement from modification is reduced. The effect of cell size
and dendritic arm spacing on mechanical properties of alloys with Si > 8% is not very
marked, but in lower-silicon alloys, in which the aluminum dendrites predominate, the
effect is normal.

Iron may slightly increase the strength, but drastically decreases the ductility, especially
if above 0.7% Fe and not corrected by manganese, cobalt, etc. Beryllium, manganese,
chromium, molybdenum, nickel, cobalt and zirconium all slightly increase the strength;
manganese, cobalt, nickel and molybdenum, if needed to correct for the iron, can also
increase the ductility; otherwise all of them reduce it. Beryllium is also reported to
correct the iron effect. Copper and zinc increase the strength at the expense of ductility,
but the most effective strengthener is magnesium, especially after heat treatment,
provided that the amount and distribution of the magnesium are correct.

Grain refinement by titanium, boron and zirconium additions has only a limited effect
on mechanical properties. Silver additions are reported to increase the elongation.
Antimony, tin, lead and cadmium decrease all properties, and antimony, by combining
with magnesium, may reduce response to heat treatment. Calcium may increase
strength and decrease elongation in straight aluminum-silicon alloys, but it has a
deleterious effect on piston alloys.

Compressive strength is higher than tensile by some 10-15%. Shear strength is

approximately 70% of the tensile strength.

Impact resistance is low, but so is notch sensitivity, as is to be expected in alloys that

contain a large amount of hard, brittle second phase, often with sharp angles. Impact
resistance is improved by spheroidising the silicon.

The modulus of elasticity is of the order of 85-95 GPa, changing with temperature, as
does tensile strength. A decrease in damping capacity with aging is reported.

Properties at cryogenic temperatures are higher than at room temperature; there is

little or no increase down to 170 K, but at 70 K the strength has become some 20%
higher than at room temperature, with little or no decline in ductility. Notch strength
does not change substantially at cryogenic temperatures. The effect of alloying elements
on cryogenic properties is not too well established, but probably it is negligible.

At high temperature the strength declines and the ductility increases. The decline is
regular and more rapid than for other aluminum alloys except the aluminum-zinc-
magnesium group. The slight increase in strength shown by heat treatable alloys,
especially if only naturally aged, is only temporary, once the overaging stage is reached,
there is a sharp drop and then the decline of strength with temperature becomes regular.
Impact resistance increases with increasing temperature. At the higher temperatures
elements with high melting points (copper, iron, manganese, nickel, cobalt, chromium,
tungsten) reduce to some extent the decline in strength, although their effect is not
substantial. Beryllium, too, is reported to improve the high-temperature strength. In
spite of their poor high-temperature strength and fatigue resistance, aluminum-silicon
alloys are used extensively for pistons because of their low expansion coefficient, good
wear resistance and good castability. Hypereutectic alloys with up to 2-3% additions of
copper, nickel, iron, manganese, chromium or magnesium are preferred, although good
performance has been obtained also with hypoeutectic alloys and alloys low in heavy
metals. Zinc, lead and tin decrease the high-temperature strength. Modified alloys have
slightly lower high-temperature strength.

Creep resistance is not particularly good. Silicon increases the creep resistance of
aluminum much less than do most other alloying elements. Copper, iron, manganese,
nickel, cobalt, chromium, etc., increase it, as is to be expected, and so do magnesium
and rare earths.

Fatigue resistance is relatively low, especially if the silicon is not modified or is

spheroidised by heat treatment. Cobalt and manganese may improve the fatigue
resistance. Pressure during freezing increases the fatigue strength and wear resistance;
surface defects and complex loads reduce it, especially at high temperature. Fatigue
strength drops gradually with temperature in straight aluminum-silicon, but there is no
drop up to 500 K in aluminum-copper-silicon alloys. The alloys are susceptible to thermal
fatigue because of the substantial difference in expansion coefficient of the matrix and
silicon particles.

Wear resistance is very good, especially in hypereutectic alloys in which the hard
silicon particles are well distributed either by phosphorus nucleation or by powder
metallurgy fabrication, or in alloys to which bismuth has been added. Wear resistance of
high-silicon alloys (20-25% Si) is 10 times better than that of plain steel and comparable
with that of surface hardened steel. Friction in couples of steel against aluminum-silicon
alloys decreases with surface perfection and hardness of the steel; however, aluminum-
silicon alloys for bearings have not been successful unless they contain substantial tin.

Corrosion resistance. Aluminum-silicon alloys without copper have good corrosion

resistance in most reagents; only in alkaline solutions which attack silicon as well as
aluminum their performance is poor. Copper reduces appreciably the corrosion resistance
and so does iron, unless corrected with manganese or chromium. Zinc up to 2-3% has no
effect. Tin and calcium also have a deleterious effect on corrosion resistance. Porosity
decreases corrosion resistance. Corrosion by flowing water is more rapid than in still
water, but of the same type. Aluminum-silicon alloys with iron and nickel have
particularly good resistance to high-temperature water or steam. In secondary alloys,
where many elements are present in small amounts, zinc and manganese compensate
for copper and nickel, and corrosion resistance is reported as very close to that of
primary alloys. Contact corrosion is especially poor in aluminum-silicon-copper alloys, but
even copper-free alloys are worse in this respect than aluminum 99.8%.

Machinability is poor, because the extreme hardness of the silicon combined with the
relative softness of the matrix tends to wear the tools very rapidly. In hypereutectic
alloys phosphorus additions that improve the silicon distribution improve machinability;
but in hypoeutectic alloys phosphorus tends to reduce it, whereas sodium improves it.
Copper reduces further the machinability for the same silicon content, especially after
heat treatment, but same of the copper-silicon alloys with low silicon may have
machinability equal to or better of high that of high-silicon, copper-free alloys. Iron,
manganese, nickel, zinc, titanium, etc., do not decrease machinability.


Which alloy is strongest? Answer, it doesn't matter. All piston alloys used by the industry
today are strong enough, including cast iron. The real story is in more technical terms like
fatigue strength, thermal conductivity, wear resistance, expansion rate, coefficient of friction
and specific gravity.

Thermal conductivity is probably the least understood of all terms as it applies to a piston
running in an engine. The effective conductivity of a piston (not the alloy) can be altered with
coatings, surface area, section design, polish, and top land design. Ideally, the combustion
surface of a piston would run at a little over 500°f and not exceed 600°f. The 600°f not-
exceed temperature is the most important when it comes to engine life because a 600°f piston
top can ignite the fuel mix independent of the spark plug.
Our performance is that we will make higher Hp and better low RPM torque with the best
economy and smog numbers. It also suggests that we will have to maximize design efforts to
cool the piston to keep the piston top below 600°f. On the opposite end of the spectrum
regarding thermal conductivity is our forging alloy 2618. It is the most conductive alloy used
by anyone making performance pistons. When the top gets hot the whole piston gets hot and
expands accordingly. Noisy when cold and just fine when warmed up. The relatively cold
piston top does hurt low RPM power and economy some, but design features can offset some
of the shortcomings. Some forgings have been made with a slot at the oil drain back area for
the purpose of restricting heat flow to the skirt. The design works and allows forgings to run
almost as tight as hypereutectic pistons. Unfortunately, the heat slot weakens the piston below
what is required for modern high Hp engines.

The coefficient of friction of all materials is pretty much the same when lubricated as the oil
really determines how much slip you have. The unlubricated condition is the important
number, especially since it is closely tied to wear and gauling. An engine seeing detonation
tends to burn the oil off the cylinder walls. The surface finish on all KB Pistons is designed to
put the oil back, but severe detonation can produce a situation with a dry cylinder and a tight
piston. The hypereutectic alloys, those with at least 16% silicon (4% free particulate), have a
structure somewhat similar to fiberglass. This hypereutectic alloy will slide on the free silicon
when oil is not present. This phenomenon is what is responsible for the almost never-gaul
never-wear reputation of KB Hypereutectic Pistons.

Specific gravity of piston alloys does affect the weight. Keith Black did make some
magnesium pistons that worked. For the most part, though, most lightweight materials tried as
piston material fall from thermal conductivity, wear, or fabrication problems. Currently the
big savings in weight comes from design changes and the use of real long connecting rods.

Expansion rate varies from aluminum alloy to aluminum alloy with about a 15% total spread.
Our forged pistons expand about 13% more than our hypereutectic. Big deal! 15% of 2/1000's
of an inch is only .0003". Twice, nothing is still nothing. Why can't we run .002" clearance on
performance forgings? The expansion of a piston is controlled by two factors, coefficient of
thermal expansion and temperature. The expansion rate is the small player, but the
temperature is drastically affected by the thermal conductivity of the piston. All successful
forging alloys send combustion chamber heat to the piston skirt quickly, and hot skirts require
the extra skirt clearance.

Strength and ductility are often confused terms. Most all pistons are more than strong enough
at room temperature, with a slight edge going to the forging alloys. At high temperature the
hypereutectic alloy has the edge strength-wise. The problem is if your pistons are 800°f and
strong the engine is hypereutectic alloy is a slow conductor of heat. The benefit in in
detonation mode and will continue to escalate temperature to destruction. (Direct injection
engines may allow higher piston top tempertures.) Ductility is the main area where forging
alloys really win. Short of breaking a wrist pin, forgings usually stay attached to the
connecting rod even with nuts, bolts, and valve heads sharing the same combustion chamber
space. A dropped valve on a forging is more likely to stick in the piston and limit damage to
the cyliner head, rod, and piston.

In summary, we make forged 2618 and 18% hypereutectic pistons to hopefully offer the best
piston choice to the end user. The hyper pistons have been designed to run forever and are a
little more high tech. The forgings are safe. They are excellent when used in development
type engines and some very high heat engines. Top fuel and 5 Hp/cubic inch plus engines see
a lot of heat, and it is a little easier to cool a forged piston top. Hypereutectic pistons are a
little less likely to form cracks than forgings because the alloy structure is somewhat like
fiberglass. Cracks occur from flexing. The KB Hyper Pistons are designed not to flex. If the
engine builder leaves a rod bolt in the intake, this soon becomes a component flex test. There
are no winners ... and piston, cylinder, and cylinder head are usually proven not very flexible.

Aluminum Alloys for Pistons

United Engine currently uses gravity feed permanent molds to produce aluminum pistons.
Aluminum, alloyed with copper,magnesium, nickel and silicon are common piston alloys in
use today.

Silicon is the major alloying element added to the aluminum. It offers a number of benefits in
the area of piston production and piston operation.
Machinability Corrosion Resistance
Weight Reduction
Improvement in Hardness and Strength
Improvement in Expansion Characteristics
Improvement in Wear and Scuff Resistance

Aluminum silicon alloys used in pistons fall into three major categories: eutectic,
hypoeutectic and hypereutectic. Probably the easiest way to describe these categories is to use
the analogy of sugar added to a glass of iced tea. When sugar is added and stirred into the iced
tea it dissolves and becomes inseparable from the iced tea. If sugar is continuously added, the
tea actually becomes saturated with sugar and no matter how much you stir, the excess sugar
will not mix in and simply falls to the bottom of the glass in crystal form.

Silicon additions to aluminum are very similar to the sugar addition to the iced tea. Silicon
can be added and dissolved into aluminum so it, too, becomes inseparable from the aluminum.
If these additions continue, the aluminum will eventually become saturated with silicon.
Silicon added above this saturation point will precipitate out in the form of hard, primary
silicon particles similar to the excess sugar in the iced tea.

This point of saturation in aluminum is known as the eutectic and occurs when the silicon
level reaches 12%. Aluminum with silicon levels below 12% are known as hypoeutectic (the
silicon is dissolved into the aluminum matrix). Aluminum with silicon levels above 12% are
known as hypereutectic (aluminum with 16% silicon has 12% dissolved silicon and 4% shows
up as primary silicon crystals).

Pistons produced from these alloy categories each have their own characteristics.
Hypoeutectic pistons usually have about 9% silicon. This alloy has been the industry standard
for many years but is being phased out in favor of eutectic and hypereutectic versions. Most
eutectic pistons range from 11% to 12% silicon.

Eutectic alloys exhibit good strength and are economical to produce. Hypereutectic pistons
have a silicon content above 12%. r>
It is the primary silicon that gives the hypereutectic its thermal and wear characteristics. The
primary silicon acts as small insulators keeping the heat in the combustion chamber and
prevents heat transfer, thus allowing the rest of the piston to run cooler. Hypereutectic
aluminum has 15% less thermal expansion than conventional piston alloys.