Metallography is the science and art of preparing a metal surface for analysis by grinding, polishing, and etching to reveal microstructual constituents. After preparation, the sample can easily be analyzed using optical or electron microscopy. A skilled technician is able to identify alloys and predict material properties, as well as processing conditions by metallography alone.
Ceramic and polymeric materials may also be prepared using metallographic techniques, hence the terms ceramography, plastography and, collectively, materialography.
Metallographic and materialographic sample preparation seeks to find the true structure of the sample. Mechanical preparation is the most common method of preparing the samples for examination. Abrasive particles are used in successively finer steps to remove material from the sample surface until the needed result is archived. A large number of preparation machines for grinding and polishing are available, meeting different demands on preparation quality, capacity, and reproducibility.
A systematic preparation method is easiest way to achieve the true structure. Sample preparation must therefore pursue rules which are suitable for most materials. Different materials with similar properties (hardness and ductility) will respond alike and thus require the same consumables during preparation.
Metallographic specimens are typically "mounted" using a hot compression thermosetting resin. In the past, phenolic thermosetting resins have been used, but modern epoxy is becoming more popular because reduced shrinkage during curing results in a better mount with superior edge retention. A typical mounting cycle will compress the specimen and mounting media to and heat to a temperature of . When specimens are very sensitive to temperature, "cold mounts" may be made with a two-part epoxy resin. Mounting a specimen provides a safe, standardized, and ergonomic way by which to hold a sample during the grinding and polishing operations.
After mounting, the specimen is wet ground to reveal the surface of the metal. The specimen is successively ground with finer and finer abrasive media. Silicon carbide sandpaper was the first method of grinding and is still used today. Many metallographers, however, prefer to use a diamond grit suspension which is dosed onto a reusable fabric pad throughout the polishing process. Diamond grit in suspension might start at 9 micrometres and finish at one micrometre. Generally, polishing with diamond suspension gives finer results than using silicon carbide papers (SiC papers), especially with revealing porosity, which silicon carbide paper sometimes "smear" over. After grinding the specimen to, polishing is performed. Typically, a specimen is polished with a slurry of alumina, silica, or diamond on a napless cloth to produce a scratch-free mirror finish, free from smear, drag, or pull-outs and with minimal deformation remaining from the preparation process.
After polishing, certain microstructural constituents can be seen with the microscope, e.g., inclusions and nitrides. If the crystal structure is non-cubic (e.g., a metal with a hexagonal-closed packed crystal structure, such as Ti or Zr) the microstructure can be revealed without etching using crossed polarized light (light microscopy). Otherwise, the microstructural constituents of the specimen are revealed by using a suitable chemical or electrolytic etchant. A great many etchants have been developed to reveal the structure of metals and alloys, ceramics, carbides, nitrides, and so forth. While a number of etchants may work for a given metal or alloy, they generally produce different results, in that some etchants may reveal the general structure, while others may be selective to certain phases or constituents.
Light microscopes are designed with either specimen placement of the polished surface on the stage upright or inverted. Each type has advantages and disadvantages. Most LOM work is done at magnifications between 50 and 1000X. However, with a good microscope, it is possible to perform examination at higher magnifications, e.g., 2000X, and even higher, as long as diffraction fringes are not present to distort the image. However, the resolution limit of the LOM will not be better than about 0.2 to 0.3 micrometer. Special objectives can be obtain to use the LOM at magnifications below 50X, which can be very helpful when examining the microstructure of cast specimens where greater spatial coverage in the field of view may be required to observe features such as dendrites. Besides considering the resolution of the optics, one must also maximize visibility by maximizing image contrast. A microscope with excellent resolution may not be able to image a structure, that is there is no visibility, if image contrast is poor. Image contrast depends upon the quality of the optics, coatings on the lenses, and reduction of flare and glare; but, it also requires proper specimen preparation and good etching techniques. So, obtaining good images requires maximum resolution and image contrast. Most texts concentrate on resolution and ignore the importance of contrast required for visibility.
Most LOM observations are conducted using bright field (BF) illumination where the image of any flat feature perpendicular to the incident light path is bright, or appears to be white. But, other illumination methods can be used and, in some cases, may provide superior images with greater detail. Dark field (DF), although not used much today, provides high contrast images and actually greater resolution than bright field. In dark field, the light from features perpendicular to the optical axis is blocked and appears dark while the light from features inclined to the surface, that look dark in BF, appear bright, or "self luminous" in DF. Grain boundaries, for example, are more vivid in DF than BF. Polarized light (PL) is very useful when studying the structure of metals with non-cubic crystal structures (mainly metals with hexagonal close-packed (hcp) crystal structures). If the specimen is prepared with minimal damage remaining at the surface, the structure can be seen vividly in crossed polarized light (the optic axis of the polarizer and analyzer are 90 degrees to each other, i.e., crossed). In some cases, an hcp metal can be chemically etched and then examined more effectively with PL. Tint etched surfaces, where a thin film (such as a sulfide, molybdate, chromate or elemental selenium film) is grown epitaxially on the surface to a depth where interference effects are created when examined with BF producing color images, can be improved with PL. If it is difficult to get a good interference film with good coloration, the colors can be improved by examination in PL using a sensitive tint (ST) filter. Another useful imaging mode is differential interference contrast (DIC), where the most common, and best detail, is obtained with a system designed by Nomarski. DIC converts minor height differences on the plane-of-polish, invisible in BF, into visible detail. The detail in some cases can be quite striking and very useful. If an ST filter is used along with the Wollaston prism, color is introduced. The colors are controlled by the adjustment of the Wollaston prism, and have no specific physical meaning, per se. But, visibility may be better. DIC has largely replaced the older oblique illumination (OI) technique available on reflected light microscopes prior to about 1975. In OI, the vertical illuminator is offset from perpendicular producing shading effects that reveal height differences. But, this procedure reduces resolution and yields uneven illumination across the field of view. Nevertheless, OI was useful when people needed to know if a second phase particle was standing above or was recessed below the plane-of-polish, and is still available on a few microscopes. OI can be created on any microscope by placing a piece of paper under one corner of the mount so that the plane-of-polish is no longer perpendicular to the optical axis.
If a specimen must be observed at higher magnification, it can be examined with a scanning electron microscope (SEM), or a transmission electron microscope (TEM). When equipped with an energy dispersive spectrometer (EDS), the chemical composition of the microstructural features can be determined. The ability to detect low-atomic number elements, such a C, O and N, depends upon the nature of the detector used. But, quantification of these elements by EDS is difficult and their minimum detectable limits are higher than when a wavelength-dispersive spectrometer (WDS) is used. But quantification of composition by EDS has improved greatly over time. The WDS system has historically had better sensitivity, that is ability to detect low amounts of an element, and ability to detect low-atomic weight elements, and better quantification of compositions, compared to EDS, it was slower to use. Again, in recent years, the speed required to perform WDS analysis has improved substantially. Historically, EDS was used with the SEM while WDS was used with the electron microprobe analyzer (EMPA). But, today EDS and WDS is used with both the SEM and the EMPA. However, a dedicated EMPA is not as common to find in laboratories as an SEM.
Characterization of microstructures has also been performed using x-ray diffraction (XRD) techniques for many years. XRD can be used to determine the percentages of various phases present in a specimen if they have different crystal structures. For example, the amount of retained austenite in a hardened steel is best measured using XRD (ASTM E 975). If a particular phase can be chemically extracted from a bulk specimen, it can be identified using XRD based on the crystal structure and lattice dimensions. This work can be complemented by EDS and/or WDS analysis where the chemical composition is quantified. But EDS and WDS are difficult to apply to particles <2-3 micrometers in diameter. For smaller particles, diffraction techniques can be performed using the TEM for identification and EDS can be performed on small particles if they are extracted from the matrix using replication methods to avoid detection of the matrix along with the precipitate.
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