Casehardening produces a hard wear resistant surface or case over a strong, tough core. Casehardening is ideal for parts which require a wear resistant surface and, at the same time, must be tough enough internally to withstand the applied loads. The steels best suited to casehardening are the low carbon and low alloy steels. If high carbon steel is casehardened, the hardness penetrates the core and causes brittleness. In casehardening, the surface of the metal is changed chemically by introducing a high carbide or nitride content. The core is unaffected chemically.
When heat treated, the surface responds to hardening while the core toughens. The common forms of casehardening are carburizing, cyaniding, and nitriding. Since cyaniding is not used in aircraft work, only carburizing and nitriding are discussed in this section.
Carburizing is a casehardening process in which carbon is added to the surface of low carbon steel. Thus, a carburized steel has a high carbon surface and a low carbon interior. When the carburized steel is heat treated, the case is hardened while the core remains soft and tough.
A common method of carburizing is called "pack carburizing." When carburizing is to be done by this method, the steel parts are packed in a container with charcoal or some other material rich in carbon. The container is then sealed with fire clay, placed in a furnace, heated to approximately 1,700° F, and soaked at that temperature for several hours. As the temperature increases, carbon monoxide gas forms inside the container and, being unable to escape, combines with the gamma iron in the surface of the steel. The depth to which the carbon penetrates depends on the length of the soaking period. For example, when carbon steel is soaked for 8 hours, the carbon penetrates to a depth of about 0.062 inch.
In another method of carburizing, called "gas carburizing," a material rich in carbon is introduced into the furnace atmosphere. The carburizing atmosphere is produced by the use of various gases or by the burning of oil, wood, or other materials. When the steel parts are heated in this atmosphere, carbon monoxide combines with the gamma iron to produce practically the same results as those described under the pack carburizing process.
A third method of carburizing is that of "liquid carburizing." In this method the steel is placed in a molten salt bath that contains the chemicals required to produce a case comparable with one resulting from pack or gas carburizing.
Alloy steels with low carbon content as well as low carbon steels may be carburized by either of the three processes. However, some alloys, such as nickel, tend to retard the absorption of carbon. As a result, the time required to produce a given thickness of case varies with the composition of the metal.
Nitriding is unlike other casehardening processes in that, before nitriding, the part is heat treated to produce definite physical properties. Thus, parts are hardened and tempered before being nitrided. Most steels can be nitrided, but special alloys are required for best results. These special alloys contain aluminum as one of the alloying elements and are called "nitralloys."
In nitriding, the part is placed in a special nitriding furnace and heated to a temperature of approximately 1,000°F. With the part at this temperature, ammonia gas is circulated within the specially constructed furnace chamber. The high temperature cracks the ammonia gas into nitrogen and hydrogen. The ammonia which does not break down is caught in a water trap below the regions of the other two gases. The nitrogen reacts with the iron to form nitride. The iron nitride is dispersed in minute particles at the surface and works inward. The depth of penetration depends on the length of the treatment. In nitriding, soaking periods as long as 72 hours are frequently required to produce the desired thickness of case.
Nitriding can be accomplished with a minimum of distortion, because of the low temperature at which parts are casehardened and because no quenching is required after exposure to the ammonia gas.