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Stress-Relief Heat Treating of Steel Domenic A.

Canonico, ABB Combustion Engineering Services


Introduction STRESS-RELIEF HEAT TREATING is used to relieve stresses that remain locked in a structure
as a consequence of a manufacturing sequence. This definition separates stress-relief heat treating from
postweld heat treating in that the goal of postweld heat treating is to provide, in addition to the relief of
residual stresses, some preferred metallurgical structure or properties (Ref 1, 2). For example, most
ferritic weldments are given postweld heat treatment to improve the fracture toughness of the heat-
affected zones (HAZ). Moreover, austenitic and nonferrous alloys are frequently postweld heat treated
to improve resistance to environmental damage. Stress-relief heat treating is the uniform heating of a
structure, or portion thereof, to a suitable temperature below the transformation range (Ac1 for ferritic
steels), holding at this temperature for a predetermined period of time, followed by uniform cooling
(Ref 2, 3). Care must be taken to ensure uniform cooling, particularly when a component is composed of
variable section sizes. If the rate of cooling is not constant and uniform, new residual stresses can result
that are equal to or greater than those that the heat-treating process was intended to relieve. Stress-
relief heat treating can reduce distortion and high stresses from welding that can affect service
performance. The presence of residual stresses can lead to stress-corrosion cracking (SCC) near welds
and in regions of a component that has been cold strained during processing. Furthermore, cold strain
per se can produce a reduction in creep strength at elevated temperatures. Residual stresses in a ferritic
steel cause significant reduction in resistance to brittle fracture. In a material that is not prone to brittle
fracture, such as an austenitic stainless steel, residual stresses can be sufficient to provide the stress
necessary to promote SCC even in environments that appear to be benign (Ref 4).
Sources of Residual Stress There are many sources of residual stress; they can occur during processing of
the material from ingot to final product form (Ref 4, 5). Residual stresses can be generated during
rolling, casting, or forging; during forming operations such as shearing, bending, drawing, and
machining; and during fabrication, in particular, welding. Residual stresses are present whenever a
component is stressed beyond its elastic limit and plastic flow occurs. Additional information on residual
stresses can be found in the article "Defects and Distortion in Heat-Treated Parts" in this Volume.
Bending a bar during fabrication at a temperature where recovery cannot occur (cold forming, for
example) will result in one surface location containing residual tensile stresses, whereas a location 180
away will contain residual compressive stresses (Ref 6). Quenching of thick sections results in high
residual compressive stresses on the surface of the material. These high compressive stresses are
balanced by residual tensile stresses in the internal areas of the section (Ref 7). Grinding is another
source of residual stresses; these can be compressive or tensile in nature, depending on the grinding
operation. Although these stresses tend to be shallow in depth, they can cause warping of thin parts
(Ref 8). Welding. The cause of residual stresses that has received the most attention in the open
literature is welding. The residual stresses associated with the steep thermal gradient of welding can
occur on a macroscale over relatively long distances (reaction stresses) or can be highly localized
(microscale) (Fig. 1). Welding usually results in localized residual stresses that approach levels equal to
or greater than the yield strength of the material at room temperature.
Alleviation of Residual Stresses A number of factors influence the relief of residual stresses, including
level of stress, permissible (or practicable) time for their relief, temperature, and metallurgical stability.
Time-Temperature Factors. The relief of residual stresses is a time-temperature-related phenomenon
(Fig. 2), parametrically correlated by the Larson-Miller equation: Thermal effect = T(log t + 20)10-3 (Eq 1)
where T is temperature (Rankin), and t is the time in hours. It is evident in Fig. 2 that similar relief of
residual stresses can be achieved by holding a component for longer periods at a lower temperature.
For example, holding a piece at 595 C (1100 F) for 6 h provides the same relief of residual stress as
heating at 650 C (1200 F) for 1 h.
Alloy Considerations. Relief of residual stresses represents typical stress-relaxation behavior, in which
the material undergoes microscopic (sometimes even macroscopic) creep at the stress-relief
temperature. Creep-resistant materials, such as the chromium-bearing low-alloy steels and the
chromium-rich high-alloy steels, normally require higher stressrelief heat-treating temperatures than
conventional low-alloy steels. Typical stress-relief temperatures for low-alloy ferritic steels are between
595 and 675 C (1100 and 1250 F). For high-alloy steels, these temperatures may range from 900 to
1065 C (1650 to 1950 F). For high-alloy steels, such as the austenitic stainless steels, stress relieving is
sometimes done at temperatures as low as 400 C (750 F). However, at these temperatures, only
modest decreases in residual stress are achieved. Residual stresses can be significantly reduced by
stress-relief heat treating those austenitic materials in the temperature range from 480 to 925 C (900 to
1700 F). At the higher end of this range, nearly 85% of the residual stresses may be relieved. Stress-
relief heat treating in this range, however, may result in sensitizing susceptible material. This
metallurgical effect can lead to SCC in service (Ref 9). Frequently, solution-annealing temperatures of
about 1065 C (1950 F) are used to achieve a reduction of residual stresses to acceptably low values.
Some copper alloys may fail by SCC due to the presence of residual stresses. These stresses are usually
relieved by mechanical or thermal stress-relief treatments. Stress-relief heat treating tends to be
favored because it is more controllable, less costly, and also provides a degree of dimensional stability.
Stress-relief heat treating of copper alloys is usually carried out at relatively low temperatures, in the
range from 200 to 400 C (390 to 750 F) (Ref 5). Resistance of a material to the reduction of its residual
stresses by thermal treatment can be estimated with a knowledge of the influence of temperature on its
yield strength. Figure 3 provides a summary of the yield strength to temperature relationship for three
generic classes of steels. The room-temperature yield strength of these materials provides an excellent
estimate of the level of localized residual stress that can be present in a structure. To relieve the residual
stress requires that the component be heated to a temperature where its yield strength approaches a
value that corresponds to an acceptable level of residual stress. Holding at this temperature can further
reduce the residual stress through the reduction of strain due to creep. Uniform cooling after residual-
stress heat treating is mandatory if these levels of residual stress are to be maintained.