Cast iron usually refers to grey cast iron, but can mean any of a group of iron-based alloys containing more than 2% carbon (alloys with less carbon are carbon steel by definition). It is made by remelting pig iron, often along with substantial quantities of scrap iron and scrap steel, and taking various steps to remove undesirable contaminants such as phosphorus and sulfur, which weaken the material. Carbon and silicon content are reduced to the desired levels, which may be anywhere from 2% to 3.5% for carbon and 1% to 3% for silicon depending on the application. Other elements are then added to the melt before the final form is produced by casting.
Cast iron's melting temperature of 1420 to 1470 kelvins is about 300 K lower than the melting point of pure iron. Cast iron tends to be brittle, unless the name of the particular alloy suggests otherwise. The color of a fracture surface can be used to identify an alloy: carbide impurities allow cracks to pass straight through, resulting in a smooth, "white" surface, while graphite flakes deflect a passing crack and initiate countless new cracks as the material breaks, resulting in a rough surface that appears grey.
Grey cast iron
Silicon is essential to making of grey cast iron as opposed to white cast iron. Silicon causes the carbon to rapidly come out of solution as graphite, leaving a matrix of relatively pure, soft iron. Weak bonding between planes of graphite lead to a high activation energy for growth in that direction, resulting in thin, round flakes. This structure has several useful properties.
The metal expands slightly on solidifying as the graphite precipitates, resulting in sharp castings. The graphite content also offers good corrosion resistance.
Graphite acts as a lubricant, improving wear resistance. The exceptionally high speed of sound in graphite gives cast iron a much higher thermal conductivity. Since ferrite is so different in this respect (having heavier atoms, bonded much less tightly) phonons tend to scatter at the interface between the two materials. In practical terms, this means that cast iron tends to “damp” mechanical vibrations (including sound), which can help machinery to run more smoothly.
All of the properties listed in the paragraph above ease the machining of grey cast iron. The sharp edges of graphite flakes also tend to concentrate stress, allowing cracks to form much more easily, so that material can be removed much more efficiently.
Easier initiation of cracks can be a drawback once an item is finished, however: grey cast iron has less tensile strength and shock resistance than steel. It is also difficult to weld.
Grey cast iron's high thermal conductivity and specific heat capacity are often exploited to make cookware. Cast-iron pots and pans are durable and provide even heating, but require seasoning—impregnation of the cooking surface with oil—to prevent rusting and to create a non-stick surface. Modern cast-iron pans are available pre-seasoned, but during cleaning one must take care not to scrub off this protective layer.
Other cast iron alloys
With a lower silicon content and faster cooling, the carbon in “white cast iron” precipitates out of the melt as the metastable phase cementite, Fe3C, rather than graphite. These precipitates inhibit plastic deformation by impeding the movement of dislocations through the ferrite matrix, offering hardness at the expense of toughness. Since carbide makes up a large fraction of the material, white cast iron could reasonably be classified as a cermet. It is too brittle for most uses, but with relatively low cost, hardness and abrasion resistance it finds use in such applications as balls for rolling-element bearings and the teeth of a backhoe's digging bucket.
It is difficult to cool thick castings fast enough to solidify the melt as white cast iron all the way through. However, rapid cooling can be used to solidify a shell of white cast iron, after which the remainder cools more slowly to form a core of grey cast iron. The resulting casting, called a “chilled casting”, has the benefits of a hard surface and a somewhat tougher interior.
“Malleable iron” starts as a white iron casting, then is held at about 900 °C for some time. Graphite separates out much more slowly in this case, so that surface tension has time to form it into spheroidal particles rather than flakes. Due to their lower aspect ratio, spheroids are relatively short and far from one another, and have a lower cross section vis-a-vis a propagating crack or phonon. They also have blunt boundaries, as opposed to flakes, which alleviates the stress concentration problems faced by grey cast iron. In general, the properties of malleable cast iron are more like mild steel. There is a limit to how large a part can be cast in malleable iron, since it is made from white cast iron.
A more recent development is "nodular" or "ductile cast iron". Tiny amounts of magnesium or cerium added to these alloys slow down the growth of graphite precipitates by bonding to the edges of the graphite planes. Along with careful control of other elements and timing, this allows the carbon to separate as spheroidal particles as the material solidifies. The properties are similar to malleable iron but parts can be cast with larger sections.
Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:08:12