Correlation between grain size and carbon content in white etching areas in bearings

Mayweg, D. and Morsdorf, L. and Li, Y. and Herbig, M.

Volume: 215 Pages:
DOI: 10.1016/j.actamat.2021.117048
Published: 2021

Premature failure of bearings during rolling contact fatigue is often associated with the formation of white etching cracks (WECs). Crack surface rubbing of WECs transforms the original bainitic/martensitic microstructure into white etching areas (WEAs), comprised of nanocrystalline ferrite. The grain size and carbon content vary within the WEA. Here, we show by atom probe tomography and scanning electron microscopy, that there is an inversely proportional relationship between grain size and carbon content in WEAs formed in 100Cr6 bearings that failed by WECs in service. We explain this phenomenon by the reduction of grain boundary energy through carbon segregation. Depending on the carbon content, this reduces the driving force for recrystallization and grain coarsening, thereby stabilizing the nanocrystalline microstructure. No such effect is observed for the substitutional element chromium. The smallest grain size (< 10 nm) is found directly next to decomposing cementite precipitates, which act as carbon sources, leading to carbon contents as high as ~9.5 at% in ferrite. Correspondingly, the WEA segments with the lowest carbon contents exhibit the largest grain sizes. Increasing carbon contents in sub regions of WEAs do not only lead to smaller grain sizes but also to higher average carbon contents at the grain boundaries as well as in the grain interior. Our results show that the mechanisms of ferrite microstructure stabilization through carbon grain boundary segregation shown in model experiments are also valid for the microstructure alterations associated with WEC failure occurring in practical bearing applications of the technical alloy 100Cr6. © 2021

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