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Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121

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Fracture toughness of nanostructured railway wheels

M.R. Zhang a,b,*, H.C. Gu a

State Key Laboratory for Mechanical Behavior of Materials, Xian Jiaotong University, Xian 710049, China
Technical Center, Maanshan Iron and Steel Co. Ltd., Maanshan 243000, China

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Received 29 November 2007
Received in revised form 21 July 2008
Accepted 28 July 2008
Available online 3 August 2008
Fracture toughness
Nanostructured materials
Railway wheels

a b s t r a c t
This paper describes nanostructured railway wheels made of SiMnMoV low-carbon
steel through an advanced metallurgy process and fabrication technology. The microstructure of the wheels, particularly in the rim portion, is composed of carbide-free bainite that
consists of bainitic ferrite laths and retained austenite lms along the lath boundaries. The
thickness of the laths and lms is in nanometer scale. For comparison, traditional pearlite
ferrite wheel steels are also investigated. Test results show that carbide-free bainite steel is
superior to pearliteferrite steel not only in yield strength but also in fracture toughness.
Theoretical explanation of these phenomena is also elucidated.
2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction
Wheels are key components whose failure often results in catastrophic consequences in rail transportation. The major
failure modes of railway wheels can be classied into ve types: shelling, spalling, at, rim cracking, and brittle fracture
[1]. At present, most wheels are made of medium-high carbon grade steels with carbon content in the range of
0.450.80 wt.%. Their microstructures are typically pearliteferrite. The yield strength, toughness, ductility, resistances to
contact fatigue and thermal damage of these steels in pearliteferrite condition is low. Increases in train speed and axle-load
require that wheels have higher stability and reliability [2,3].
Nanostructured materials, with average structural domain sizes below 100 nm, are believed to exhibit a marked improvement in mechanical properties over their coarse-structured counterparts [48]. There is now strong evidence showing that
severe plastic deformation (SPD) and controlled solid-state transformation are effective means to obtain nanostructured
materials. Railway wheels are huge in mass (weight: 330450 kg, and diameter: U840U1250 mm) and complex in shape
(see Fig. 1). It seems impossible to fabricate the wheels from nano-scale clusters or by severe plastic deformation (SPD). This
paper will report our achievement in producing nanostructured wheels (especially in the rim portion) using an advanced metallurgy process and fabrication technology at a cost comparable to current commercial wheels. The excellent combination of
yield strength and fracture toughness is associated with bainitic ferrite laths and retained austenite lms both in nano-size.
2. Experimental
2.1. Materials
A novel carbide-free bainite steel alloyed with silicon and manganese was designed and developed. Silicon can suppress
the precipitation of cementite during bainitic transformation; manganese increases the hardenability of the steel, and thus, it
* Corresponding author. Address: Technical Center, Maanshan Iron and Steel Co. Ltd., Maanshan 243000, Anhui, China. Tel.: +86 555 2887272; fax: +86
555 2883612.
E-mail address: (M.R. Zhang).
0013-7944/$ - see front matter 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


M.R. Zhang, H.C. Gu / Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121

A, m
r0, Ky

ry, YS

crack depth
constant parameters in Paris equation
impact toughness using standard U-notch specimens at room temperature
compact tension
Youngs modulus
crack growth rate
stress-intensity factor
fracture toughness
SIF at applied load pop-in
SIF at maximum applied load
grain size
stress ratio
reduction of area
ultimate tensile strength
a xed distance ahead a microcrack (by Knott)
interlamellar spacing in pearlite
stress-intensity factor range
constant parameters in HallPetch relation
cyclic ow stress
local fracture stress
yield strength

homogenizes the microstructure and properties of the wheel section. The micro-alloying elements vanadium and molybdenum are also added in order to gain ne laths and eliminate tempered embrittlement. The steel was smelt with intermediate
frequency induction furnace, and electroslag remelt into ingots with a diameter of U420 mm and a weight of 920 kg. After
stress relief annealing and cutting, the round ingots were forged and rolled into the wheels of U840 mm in diameter for
wagon transportation. During heat treatment, the wheels were heated to 910 C for austenitization. After soaking 2 h, slack
quenching with water were conducted on the tread of rim section by programmed control to simulate the isothermal heat
treatment. The alloy design and manufacture process of this steel are summarized in [9]. For comparison, traditional
pearliteferrite wheel steels CL60, a plain carbon steel with carbon content 0.60 wt.%, were also investigated.
The chemical compositions of the steels were measured using an ARL 4460 Optical Emission Spectrometer. The results are
shown in Table 1.

Fig. 1. The counter diagram of a wheel on the rail.


M.R. Zhang, H.C. Gu / Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121

Table 1
Actual chemical composition of the steels, wt.%





Novel steel









2.2. Microstructure
The microstructure of specimens taken from the rim, web, and hub sections was observed with a Zeiss Axioskop 1MAT
optical microscope and a scanning electron microscope (SEM) Philips XL30 + DX41. Because cracks usually nucleate and
propagate on the rim portion, in this paper, we will focus on the rim portion only.
Fig. 2 shows the microstructure of CL60, in which pearlite and pro-eutectoid ferrite can be seen. The morphology of pearlite in detail, with alternating layers of cementite (Fe3C) and ferrite formed in pearlite colonies are revealed. An optical micrograph of carbide-free bainite is shown in Fig. 3. The detail of microstructure is unresolved under 1000 magnication.
Samples of the novel bainitic steel were machined down to foils of U3 mm diameter and 50 lm thickness, and then, these
foils were electro-polished until perforation occurred using a twin jet electro-polisher. These foils were examined with a
transmission electron microscope (TEM). Figs. 46 were taken with a eld emission high-resolution transmission electron
microscope (HRTEM) JEM-2100 F. As shown in Fig. 4, the details of carbide-free bainite are revealed now, i.e., the slender
laths of bainitic ferrite and the lms of retained austenite along the lath boundaries. Fig. 5 shows a twin within the lm
of retained austenite, and the Fe atom arrangement on the (1 1 1) plane in retained austenite can be seen in Fig. 6. The feature
of the structure is consistent with the previous research [10,11]. Retained austenite in lm morphology and nano-size thickness has excellent thermal and mechanical stability [12].

Fig. 2. Pearlite and pro-eutectoid ferrite of CL60 etched by 4% nital.

Fig. 3. Optical micrograph of carbide-free bainite wheel etched by 4% nital.


M.R. Zhang, H.C. Gu / Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121

Fig. 4. TEM micrograph of carbide-free bainite wheel.

Fig. 5. A twin within the lm of retained austenite.

Fig. 6. Two-dimensional lattice image of retained austenite.

2.3. Mechanical properties

Tensile and impact specimens were taken from the rim portion of the wheels. Tensile specimens were tested with a
WAWY500A material testing system according to the Chinese railway standard TB/T28171997. Impact toughness was
evaluated using 10 mm  10 mm  55 mm Charpy U2-notch specimens broken at room temperature with a Zwick/Roell
Amsler KRP 450 instrumented impactor. The Brinell hardness numbers (HB) were measured at a point 30 mm under the
tread with a Digital Brinell Testor 970/3000. The test results are summarized in Table 2. The novel steel reects an excellent
combination of strength and toughness compared with CL60 wheel steel, especially in yield strength and impact toughness.


M.R. Zhang, H.C. Gu / Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121

Table 2
Mechanical properties of the wheels





Hardness HB

Aku J/cm2

Novel steel







2.4. Fracture mechanics tests

2.4.1. Fracture toughness
The fracture toughness of the rim was investigated at room temperature using an MTS-810 TESTSTAR, controlled by a
790.50 Fracture Toughness Test software application. Compact tension specimens CT50 (length 125 mm  width
120 mm  thickness 50 mm) and CT30 (length 125 mm  width 120 mm  thickness 30 mm) were used. Fig. 7 shows the
location of the CT50 specimen in the wheel rim. Table 3 gives the test results.
For bainitic wheel steel, 2.5K Q =YS2 1618 mm, the values of KQ are equal to valid KIC; for CL60 wheel steel,
2.5K Q =YS2 = 1526 mm, KQ obtained from CT30 specimens are also valid KIC .The fracture surfaces of the specimens were
observed with a SEM Philips XL30 + DX-41. Fig. 8 shows a macro-morphology of the fracture surface of a specimen related to
the carbide-free bainite microstructure. The lower boundary, indicating the contour of the pre-fatigued zone, roughly corresponds to the start of load PPOP. The upper boundary, where shear lips formed on the two sides and then coalesced in the
centre, corresponds to the load Pmax. Figs. 9 and 10 show the fractographs of the bainitic wheel in the middle area within
the stretched zone. Many secondary cracks and irregular parallel ridges can be seen. In contrast to the bainite steel, the
stretched zone in the specimen of the CL60 steel is rather narrow. This coincides, with the fact that specimens of CL60 suddenly fractured when the load approached PQ, thus PQ was equal to Pmax.
2.4.2. Subcritical crack growth rate
The subcritical crack growth rate of carbide-free bainite steel was also measured. The relation between crack growth
increment per cycle (da/dN) and the parameter of the range of stress-intensity factor (DK) was proposed initially by Paris
[13] as below

Fig. 7. Scheme of the location for CT50 sample in rim.

Table 3
Fracture toughness values of the wheels






K Q ; MPa 


K max ; MPa 


Measured values


Measured values




91, 89, 92
90, 86


78, 79
62.0, 61,
66, 63
66, 70,
53, 64

Kmax = KQ


M.R. Zhang, H.C. Gu / Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121

Fig. 8. SEM fractograph of macro-morphology.

Fig. 9. SEM fractograph of stretched zone with secondary cracks.

Fig. 10. SEM fractograph of irregular parallel ridges.

da=dN A  DK m

A more comprehensive equation was given by Knott [14].


A  DK m 1 R
1  R K IC  K max


; E: Youngs modulus.
where, rf: cyclic ow stress; R : stress ratio; R KKmax
Fatigue tests were carried out in three-point bending on an MTS-810, controlled by Standard Test Method for Measurement of Fatigue Crack Growth Rates software. The specimens were of single-edge-notch (length 134 mm  width

M.R. Zhang, H.C. Gu / Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121


26 mm  thickness 13 mm). The load ratio R is 0.1. It took a higher load amplitude and longer cycles to nucleate crack in
bainitic steel than CL60. The load is 1.5-15 kN and frequency is 25 Hz for bainitic steel, in contrast to 0.858.5 kN and
20 Hz for pearlite steel. The average value from three specimens of Pariss parameters A is 1.1  108 and m is 2.3 for bainitic
steel, comparing to A equals 1.7  108 and m equals 2.6 for CL60.
As mentioned above, the bainitic steel offers higher yield strength and fracture toughness, so the novel steel has good
resistance to crack propagation.
2.5. Field performance of real wheels
Eight wheels made of this novel steel were manufactured according to the U840 wagons requirements, including dimensions, tolerances etc., and were tted on the rst bogie of two freight wagons. They were run on a specic railway line at the
speed of 120 km/h. Surface appearances, wear scar and debris, and volume losses on the tread of the wheels were inspected
periodically; and an ultra-sonoscope was also used to detect the cracks in the rim and web. After 180,000 test kilometers, no
shelling, spalling, or cracking was found on the tread of the trial wheels with a carbide-free bainite microstructure.
Thus, the real world tests conrm that the carbide-free bainite wheels possess an excellent combination of strength and
toughness, high-fatigue resistance and good tribological behaviors, and possess an especial high resistance to thermal

3. Discussion
3.1. Manufacture procedures and costs
The railway wheels are huge in size and mass, and complex in shape. In order to assure the microstructures and properties,
some elements must have been added during alloy design, such as manganese, silicon and so on. The addition of alloying elements will increase the cost of the present steel; especially molybdenum and vanadium are the expensive elements. The manufacture procedures of the steel-making, wheel-shaping and rolling and heat-treating of the new steel can proceed on the
production line as commercial wheels without change of main equipment. But the novel steel is immune to hydrogen embrittlement; the diffuse-hydrogen annealing process (heat to 600670 C, then hold more than 4 h) of the wheels can be abolished
if controlling the hydrogen content below 2.0 ppm during steel-making and slow cooling after rolling. Furthermore, the martensite phase transformation start point Ms of the novel steel is sufciently high (370400 C), auto-tempering will occur after
programmed quenching, so tempered heat treatment (heat to 420500 C and hold 4 h) can also be abolished. Thus, the manufacture procedures can be simplied, and it will increase effectiveness, save energy and decrease the cost.
The novel wheels have higher resistance to spalling and shelling because they have high-mechanical properties and good
performances in running. These enhancements can result in signicant savings in applications where damage from rolling
contact fatigue (RCF) and braking thermal fatigue may cause greater material removal requirements through machining
(re-proling) than that resulting from service wear. It will improve safety, reliability and economy of railway transportation.
3.2. Yield strength
Hall and Petch measured the values of lower yield stress, ry, exhibited by a-iron polycrystal specimens having different
grain sizes. The results have been summarized as the well known HallPetch relation [15]: ry is proportional to the inverse
square root of the average polycrystal grain diameter, L, such that

ry r0 K y  L1=2

where r0 and Ky are taken as experimental constants. This is an approximation, and a more general formulation uses a power
expression with exponent, n, such that

ry r0 K y  Ln

where, 0.3 6 n 6 0.7. Nano-crystalline materials have been the subject of widespread research over the past couple of decades. Increasing interest has focused on whether the HallPetch relationship can be extrapolated to grain sizes of nano-scale
In our case, neither pearliteferrite steel nor carbide-free bainite steel is pure iron. Rather, they are multi-phase materials.
Pearlite is a very common constituent of a wide variety of steels. Lamellar eutectoid structures of this type are widespread in
metallurgy [20]. The morphology and crystallography of pearlite and the mechanism and kinetics of pearlite formation have
been thoroughly investigated [21]. We only point out that two phases in pearlite are ferrite and cementite (Fig. 3). Ferrite
contains 0.025 wt.% carbon, so it can be considered to be pure iron, while cementite, Fe3C, is a compound, containing 25%
atomic carbon, which is about 6% by weight. Ferrite is ductile, while cementite is hard and brittle. The yield strength of pearlite is controlled by the pearlite interlamellar spacing, SP, the distance from the centre of one cementite lamella to the centre
of the next, measured normal to the plane of the lamellae. Heller [22] proposed a simple equation to describe the yield
strength of pearlite, which is similar to the HallPetch relation. It follows that


M.R. Zhang, H.C. Gu / Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121

ry pearlite 85:9 8:3  S1=2


In carbide-free bainite steel, the laths of bainitic ferrite are carbon depleted. The thickness of these laths is extremely ne.
The lms of retained austenite are carbon rich, and distributed along the lath boundaries. The thickness of these lms is also
in nano-scale. So it is not surprising that the yield strength of carbide-free bainite is stronger than pearlite.
3.3. Fracture toughness
Combining the mechanics of fracture with the mechanism of fracture, Knott concluded that ne grain size, ne carbide
distribution, and widely spaced inclusions will produce high toughness [23]. Analogous to the HallPetch treatment for
spread of yield from grain to grain, the critical value of K for fracture has been derived [24]

K IC rF 


where r  is a xed distance from microcrack to crack-tip, and rF is the local tensile stress required to propagate the microcrack. According to the RKR model, r  is close to two grain diameters; while according to the CK model, r  is a statistically
averaged distance [25].
In wheel steels, both the interlamellar spacing of pearlite, and the dimensions of bainitic ferrite laths are statistical values.
We cannot calculate the values of fracture toughness of both wheel steels quantitatively yet. Generally speaking, the value of
r is dependent on the size of the fracture unit. In CL60 steel, the fracture unit is the pearlite colony and ferrite grain; while in
carbide-free bainite steel, the fracture unit may be the lath packet or austenite grain. From a microstructure examination, we
have reason to believe that the r  of bainite steel is a bit larger than the r  of pearliteferrite steel. On the other hand, bainite
steel offers a higher ry than CL60 steel, so the former has a higher rF than the latter. Thus, carbide-free bainite steel offers a
higher fracture toughness than pearliteferrite steel.
There are other advantages to the high toughness of bainite. In pearlite, ferrite is ductile while cementite is hard, so the
interfaces between ferrite and cementite have been found to be the sites for crack nucleation. In contrast, in carbide-free
bainite, the retained austenite with its face centred cubic lattice, easily accommodates the deformation of bainitic ferrite.
Moreover, the retained austenite lms can buffer the propagation of cracks, and when retained austenite is transformed into
martensite, crack closure would likely occur due to volume expansion. This referred to as transformation induced plasticity
(TRIP) effect [26]. Actually, the retained austenite inside the plastic zone at the fatigue crack-tip a 25Si2Mn2CrNiMoV ultrahigh-strength steel transforms to martensite was observed [27]. There is reason to expect that the novel steel discussed here
has higher yield strength and higher fracture toughness, so longer critical crack length or longer nondestructive inspection
intervals could be adopted, indicating that the wheels made of the novel steel will be safer than traditional steels.
3.4. Additional advantages
The novel steel has other advantages, such as being resistant to thermal damage and hydrogen embrittlement. When the
surfaces of rails are wet or frosty, or a running train is braked, wheels skid on the rails; the contact points of tread surfaces
can be heated to a temperature high enough to form austenite, and then cooled rapidly as the heat is dissipated, causing the
austenite to transform into martensite. In traditional medium-high carbon steels, martensite is in the form of lenticular
plates, which are brittle; while in our low-carbon steel, the martensite is in the form of laths, which are ductile, so the novel
steel is immune to thermal damage. Moreover, conventional CL60 steel is sensitive to hydrogen embrittlement. For our novel
steel, carbide-free bainite offers minimum susceptibility to hydrogen embrittlement as compared with martensite and pearliteferrite steels. In particular, when silicon is present in excess of 1 wt.%, it further improves the resistance to hydrogen
embrittlement [28].
It is interesting to compare our results with those obtained from nano-crystalline Fe and nanostructured steels. A bulk
iron with grain size of 180 nm was fabricated by consolidating mechanically milled iron powder. Its yield strength was
1.6 GPa, while there was no elongation after the yielding [29]. Other nano-phase Fe samples, with an average grain size
of about 80 nm, were consolidated using sinter forging from nano-crystalline Fe powders prepared by mechanical attrition
[30]. The compression yield strength was about 2.5 GPa with very little (well below 1%) plastic strain before fracture, while
the tension breaking stress was in the range of 250330 MPa, which is roughly about 1/10 of the compressive strength. In
China, a kind of Super steel with yield strength over 2 GPa and average austenite grain size about 1000 nm has been developed and is now commercially available. Efforts were made to strive for increasing resistances to fatigue and fracture. In the
U.S.A., a high strength, high toughness, high-alloy steel, called Aer Met 100, developed by Carpenter Technologies, has outp
standing strength and toughness (KIC as high as 180 MPa  m at yield strength above 1850 MPa) with ultra-ne grain size in
the submicron range [31]. The composition of the steel is Fe-13.4 Co-11.1 Ni-3.1Cr-1.20Mo-0.23 C. All these data lead us to
believe that we have to choose a balance not only in strength and toughness, but also in performance and economy. Railway
wheels are manufactured on mass production scale. Lean alloy steel and an easy fabrication method should be preferred.
Recently, the ideal strength of iron was established from rst-principles calculations [32]. The ideal tensile strength of Fe
in the h0 0 1i direction is 12.6 GPa. The ideal shear strengths of the two shear systems, h1 1 1i {1 1 2} and h1 1 1i {1 1 0}, are
7.2 GPa and 7.8 GPa, respectively. For almost three millennia, iron and its alloy have provided the most commonly used

M.R. Zhang, H.C. Gu / Engineering Fracture Mechanics 75 (2008) 51135121


structural materials, with which two great sciences, mechanics and materials, joined together. Iron and steel still offer great
potential for further discoveries.
4. Conclusions
1. The microstructure in the wheel rim made of the novel bainitic steel has been proved by observation, using a eld
emission high-resolution transmission electron microscope(HRTEM) JEM2100F, to be carbide-free bainite, i.e., to
possess bainitic ferrite laths and retained austenite lms along the lath boundaries. The thicknesses of the laths
and lms are in nanometer scale.
2. The yield strength of the novel bainitic steel is higher than that of pearliteferrite steels. This trend is consistent with
the HallPetch relation.
3. The fracture toughness of the novel bainitic steel is also higher than that of pearliteferrite steel. This fact can be
explained in terms of the Knott model.
4. The actual load tests and real world trials empirically conrm that the carbide-free bainite wheels have high toughness and service performance.

Financial support from the Ministry of Railway and the National 863 Projects is greatly appreciated.
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