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Diffusion hardening is a process used in manufacturing that increases the hardness of steels.

In diffusion hardening, diffusion occurs between a steel with a low carbon content and a carbon-rich environment to increase the carbon content of the steel and ultimately harden the workpiece. Diffusion only happens through a small thickness of a piece of steel (about 2.5 m to 1.5 mm), so only the surface is hardened while the core maintains its original mechanical properties. Heat treating may be performed on a diffusion hardened part to increase the hardness of the core as desired, but in most cases in which diffusion hardening is performed, it is desirable to have parts with a hard outer shell and a more ductile inside. Heat treating and quenching is a more efficient process if hardness is desired throughout the whole part. In the case of manufacturing parts subject to large amounts of wear, such as gears, the nonuniform properties acquired through diffusion hardening are desired. Through this process, gears obtain a hard wear-resistant outer shell but maintain their softer and more impact-resistant core.

Process
Diffusion hardening is performed by completely surrounding a metal part with the element to be diffused into it in either the solid, liquid, or gas phase depending on the type of diffusion process being performed. The concentration of the diffusing element surrounding the part must be higher than the concentration of the element inside the part, or diffusion will not occur. The metal and the surrounding element must then be heated to a temperature sufficiently high for diffusion to occur. In the case of pack carburizing, the temperature must be 900 C and the part must be allowed to sit for 12 to 72 hours for the correct amount of diffusion to occur.

Types
Diffusion hardening can be done in many different ways to achieve different hardnesses and different surface finishes on metal parts. Some of the different diffusion hardening operations include: Carburizing, Nitriding, Carbonitriding, Nitrocarburizing, Boriding, Titanium-carbon diffusion, and Toyota diffusion. While diffusion hardening is performed mainly on steel parts and carbon is mainly the element used for diffusion, diffusion hardening can also be performed with other diffusion elements and with other metals. In nitriding, nitrogen is diffused into the surface of steel, but can also be used with metals such as Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum, and Vanadium. Besides metals and diffusion elements used, diffusion hardening processes differ in the temperature required for diffusion, the phase of the diffusion element, and additional treatments such as quenching and tempering. These different factors greatly affect surface finish and dimensional accuracy of a part. A quenched and tempered part does not have the same dimensional accuracy as a part that has not undergone such a process. Also, they can affect the efficiency of the overall process. In carburizing, the carbon can be in any of the solid, liquid, or gas phases. Although using carbon in the solid phase is usually the safest and easiest of these to work with, the process is difficult to control and the heating is inefficient. All these things must come into consideration when choosing a diffusion hardening process.

CASE HARDENING Case Hardening is a process of hardening ferrous alloys so that the surface layer or case is made substantially harder than the interior or core. The chemical composition of the surface layer is altered during the treatment by the addition of carbon, nitrogen, or both. City Steel Heat Treating provides the most common processes of Carburizing, Carbonitriding, and Gas Nitriding.

CARBURIZING Carburizing is a process used to harden low carbon steels that normally would not respond to quenching and tempering. This is done for economical reasons (utilizing less expensive steel) or design considerations to provide a tough part with good wear characteristics. Carburizing introduces carbon into a solid ferrous alloy by heating the metal in contact with a carbonaceous material to a temperature above the transformation range and holding at that temperature. The depth of penetration of carbon is dependent on temperature, time at temperature, and the composition of the carburizing agent. As a rough indication, a carburized depth of about .0.030 to 0.050 inches can be obtained in about 4 hours at 1700F, depending upon the type of carburizing agent, which may be a solid, liquid, or gas. Since the primary object of carburizing is to secure a hard case and a relatively soft, tough core, only low-carbon steels (up to a maximum of about 0.25% carbon), either with or without alloying elements (nickel, chromium, manganese, molybdenum), are normally used. After carburizing, the steel will have a high carbon case graduating into the lowcarbon core. Once the carburization is complete, the parts must be hardened and tempered to obtain the desired properties of both the core and the case.

CARBONITRIDING Carbonitriding, also called Nitrocarburizing, is a process for case hardening steel part in a gas-carburizing atmosphere that contains ammonia in controlled percentages. The process is carried on above the transformation range, up to 1700F. The parts are then quenched in oil to obtain maximum hardness. The depth to which carbon and nitrogen penetrate varies with temperature and time. The penetration of carbon is approximately the same as that obtained in Gas Carburizing.

GAS NITRIDING Gas Nitriding consists of subjecting machined and heat-treated steel, free from surface decarburization, to the action of a nitrogenous medium, usually ammonia gas, at a temperature of approximately 950F to 1050F, creating a very hard surface. The surface hardening effect is due to the absorption of nitrogen, and subsequent heat treatment if the steel is unnecessary. The case is less than .020 inch deep and the highest hardness exists in the surface layers to a depth of only a few thousandths of an inch. Because of the low temperatures required for Gas Nitriding, distortion is very low compared to other Case Hardening processes. Because Gas Nitriding is carried out at a relatively low temperature, it is advantageous to use quenched and tempered steel as the base material. This gives a strong, tough core with an intensely hard wear-resisting case -- much harder than can be obtained by quench hardened or carburized steel.

SURFACE HARDENING INDUCTION PROCESS It is frequently desirable to harden only the surface of steels by simply changing their microstructure without altering the chemical composition of the surface layers. If steel contains sufficient carbon to respond to hardening, it is possible to harden the surface layers only by very rapid heating for a short period of time, thus conditioning the surface for hardening by quenching. Induction Hardening allows the selective hardening of a part to achieve desired hardness over a specific area and depth. Because the part is selectively heated, the heat-affected zone can be adjusted to minimize distortion and other problems. Surface hardening with induction creates parts that have excellent resistance to fatigue. A hard outer case is created over a ductile core, with high compressive forces at the surface. These compressive forces at the surface improve fatigue properties by delaying crack initiation and propagation during service.

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