A focused ion beam is used to fabricate a nanopillar (left) in the HEA for a compression test. A transmission electron microscope is used to image the dislocation pile up during a dislocation avalanche (see D on right). Image: Frederick Seitz Materials Research Lab.
A focused ion beam is used to fabricate a nanopillar (left) in the HEA for a compression test. A transmission electron microscope is used to image the dislocation pile up during a dislocation avalanche (see D on right). Image: Frederick Seitz Materials Research Lab.

Mechanical structures are only as sound as the materials from which they are made. For decades researchers have studied the materials in these structures to see why and how they fail. Before catastrophic failure, individual cracks or dislocations tend to form, which are signals that a structure may be weakening. While researchers have studied individual dislocations in the past, a team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory has now made it possible to understand how dislocations organize and react at the nanoscale.

"Metals are made of polycrystals and the crystals have atoms arranged in an orderly way," explained lead author Jian-Mu Zuo, professor of materials science and engineering and an affiliate with the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "As force is applied in these metals, the crystals will slip and move against each other. A structure like a bridge might have a lot of dislocations, which can move, but the amount of movement is so small it doesn't have a consequence. However, as thousands or tens of thousands of dislocations tangle within a metal, they produce local stress. This organization can lead to sudden deformation, like a snow avalanche. That's very dramatic and much more difficult to control."

The team, which also includes Karin Dahmen, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published its findings in a paper in Communications Physics.

Until this study, researchers couldn't make sense of the mechanism behind dislocation avalanches within a structure. However, the Illinois team found that a series of dislocations piling up forms a dam that prohibits movement; behind the dam are tangled dislocations. Once there is enough pressure, an avalanche forms causing the dam to give way and the sudden movement of the tangled dislocations, which weakens the metal and can eventually lead to catastrophic failure. By having a better understanding of this process, this study promises to assist in developing even stronger materials in the future and to better predict when a structure may be in peril.

In order to study the dislocations, which look like strings just a few nanometers wide, the team followed the development of dislocation avalanches in compressed nanopillars made from a high-entropy alloy (HEA). The HEA has the same average structure as copper or gold, but its atoms are arranged in such a way that the researchers can simultaneously measure and correlate dislocation motion with mechanical response, and pinpoint exactly where the avalanche occurs. By identifying the dislocation bands, the researchers are able to watch what happens before, during and after the avalanche.

"People have understood how individual dislocations move, but until this point they haven't understood how they move suddenly together," Zuo noted. "Our innovation is to use a new material [the HEA] to study a very old problem and to develop this technique to do so."

Because the dislocations typically structure themselves at microns apart (think the network of cracks in a sheet of ice after walking on it), it can be difficult to pinpoint a single event by looking at the dislocations using a microscope that only works with thin samples. A transmission electron microscope, for example, requires samples that are typically less than 1µm thick.

"In a conventional metal, the dislocations are too far apart than what we can see at one time, therefore they disappear on the surface," Zuo explained. "Also, a deformed metal has bunches of dislocations, but only a few that are actually active. Because of that, some scholars have commented when people look at the deformation afterward in the metal, it's like visiting a dislocation graveyard."

In order to witness a complete single avalanche, Zuo and his team needed to find a material where the dislocation interacts over a much smaller scale. The HEA is a new type of alloy made up of five different metal elements (Al0.1CoCrFeNi). Because each metal atom has a different size, the crystals in the alloy are distorted. This slows down the dislocation, making it possible to store many dislocations and an avalanche within a relatively small volume.

The Illinois researchers were able measure the dislocation through a technique called nanoindentation. This involved using an ion beam to fabricate a nanopillar in the HEA and then applying a force to the nanopillar with a small flat diamond tip of a nanoindenter.

"This material allows us to look at dislocations on the nanoscale [500nm]," said Zuo, explaining the process. "We have a mechanical lab apply a force to a testing sample inside an electron microscope. As the stress is applied, the sample deforms. When stress exceeds the stress required for the dislocation to move inside the nanopillar, the dislocation will multiply. As the dislocation moves and encounters a resistance, they slow down and get tangled together and form a dislocation band. If you think of the stress like water flow, then the dislocation avalanche is like a dam breaking and water suddenly running out. The HEA makes the observation possible."

The results of the process are two measurements. There is a mechanical measurement, which allows the researchers to study how much force it takes for the dislocations to move and by how much, while electron imaging captures the dislocation motion in a video. No previous study has been able to couple electron imaging with mechanical force measurement to study dislocation avalanches.

"From previous accumulative studies, we knew how dislocations are produced and we have been able to study what was left behind," Zuo said. "This study provides a critical answer to how dislocations interact."

Zuo adds that this type of measurement can be used to develop theories and computational models for predicting how materials will behave under certain stress. "That's important because catastrophic failure starts with this type of sudden deformation," Zuo said. "We will be able to better predict the action before there is catastrophic failure. That in turn should lead to the development of much stronger materials."

This study coincides with strong efforts across the Illinois campus to use HEAs for nuclear reactor and high temperature applications. "HEAs are stable at high temperatures and can accommodate lots of strain," Zuo said. "If we understand the dislocation structure, it will help to develop materials for very challenging applications."

This story is adapted from material from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.