Direct observation of individual hydrogen atoms at trapping sites in a ferritic steel

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Science  17 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6330, pp. 1196-1199
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal2418

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Heavy hydrogen gets frozen in place

Hydrogen embrittlement contributes to the failure of steel in a wide variety of everyday applications. Various strategies to mitigate hydrogen embrittlement, such as adding carbides into the steel, are hard to validate because we are unable to map the hydrogen atoms. Chen et al. combined fluxing steel samples with deuterium and a cryogenic transfer protocol to minimize hydrogen diffusion, allowing for detailed structural analysis (see the Perspective by Cairney). Their findings revealed hydrogen trapped in the cores of the carbide precipitates. The technique will be applicable to a wide range of problems, including corrosion, catalysis, and hydrogen storage.

Science, this issue p. 1196; see also p. 1128


The design of atomic-scale microstructural traps to limit the diffusion of hydrogen is one key strategy in the development of hydrogen-embrittlement–resistant materials. In the case of bearing steels, an effective trapping mechanism may be the incorporation of finely dispersed V-Mo-Nb carbides in a ferrite matrix. First, we charged a ferritic steel with deuterium by means of electrolytic loading to achieve a high hydrogen concentration. We then immobilized it in the microstructure with a cryogenic transfer protocol before atom probe tomography (APT) analysis. Using APT, we show trapping of hydrogen within the core of these carbides with quantitative composition profiles. Furthermore, with this method the experiment can be feasibly replicated in any APT-equipped laboratory by using a simple cold chain.

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