Precipitation hardening, also called age hardening, is a heat treatment technique used to increase the yield strength of malleable materials, including most structural alloys of aluminium, magnesium, nickel, titanium, and some stainless steels. In superalloys, it is known to cause yield strength anomaly providing excellent high temperature strength.
Precipitation hardening relies on changes in solid solubility with temperature to produce fine particles of an impurity phase, which impede the movement of dislocations, or defects in a crystal's lattice. Since dislocations are often the dominant carriers of plasticity, this serves to harden the material. The impurities play the same role as the particle substances in particle-reinforced composite materials. Just as the formation of ice in air can produce clouds, snow, or hail, depending upon the thermal history of a given portion of the atmosphere, precipitation in solids can produce many different sizes of particles, which have radically different properties. Unlike ordinary tempering, alloys must be kept at elevated temperature for hours to allow precipitation to take place. This time delay is called aging. Solution treatment and aging is sometimes abbreviated "STA" in metals specs and certs.
Note that two different heat treatments involving precipitates can alter the strength of a material: solution heat treating and precipitation heat treating. Solid solution strengthening involves formation of a single-phase solid solution via quenching. Precipitation heat treating involves the addition of impurity particles to increase a material's strength. Precipitation hardening via precipitation heat treatment is the main topic of discussion in this article.
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