Carburization of steel involves a heat treatment of the metallic surface using a gaseous, liquid, solid or plasma source of carbon. Early carburization used a direct application of charcoal packed onto the metal (initially referred to as case hardening or Kolsterising), but modern techniques apply carbon-bearing gases or plasmas (such as carbon dioxide or methane). The process depends primarily upon ambient gas composition and furnace temperature, which must be carefully controlled, as the heat may also impact the microstructure of the rest of the material. For applications where great control over gas composition is desired, carburization may take place under very low pressures in a vacuum chamber.
Plasma carburization is increasingly used in major industrial regimes to improve the surface characteristics (such as wear and corrosion resistance, hardness and load-bearing capacity, in addition to quality-based variables) of various metals, notably stainless steels. The process is used as it is environmentally friendly (in comparison to gaseous or solid carburizing) and thus tax deductible, as well as allowing for even treatment of components with complex geometry (the plasma can penetrate into holes and tight gaps), making it very flexible in terms of component treatment.
The process of carburization works via the implantation of carbon atoms in to the surface layers of a metal. As metals are made up of atoms bound tightly into a metallic crystalline lattice, the implanted carbon atoms force their way into the crystal structure of the metal and either remain in solution (dissolved within the metal crystalline matrix — this normally occurs at lower temperatures) or react with the host metal to form ceramic carbides (normally at higher temperatures, due to the higher mobility of the host metal's atoms). Both of these mechanisms strengthen the surface of the metal, the former by causing lattice strains by virtue of the atoms being forced between those of the host metal and the latter via the formation of very hard particles that resist abrasion. However, each different hardening mechanism leads to different solutions to the initial problem: the former mechanism — known as solid solution strengthening — improves the host metal's resistance to corrosion whilst imparting its increase in hardness; the latter — known as precipitation strengthening — greatly improves the hardness but normally to the detriment of the host metals corrosion resistance. Engineers using plasma carburization must decide which of the two mechanisms matches their needs.
In oxy-acetylene welding, a carburizing flame is one with little oxygen, which produces a sooty, lower-temperature flame. It is often used to anneal metal, making it more malleable and flexible during the welding process.