Nano- and microscale plasticity

Nano- and microscale plasticity

Material strength and underlying plasticity mechanisms can change when deformed at micro- and nanometre length-scales. While being of fundamental scientific interest, such observations have significant implications for the design of advanced material systems, as for thin-films.

Nano- and microscale plasticity is pivotal in shaping the mechanical behaviour of materials at small length scales, crucial for the design and engineering of advanced materials with tailored mechanical properties. In nanomaterials, such as nanoparticles and nanocomposites, unique mechanical phenomena emerge due to the dominance of surface effects, influencing their strength, hardness, and ductility. Similarly, at the microscale, materials often exhibit size-dependent plasticity, with grain boundaries and interfaces significantly affecting mechanical response. This knowledge is vital for developing reliable and resilient materials for microelectromechanical systems, nanoelectronics, and biomedical applications, where mechanical integrity is paramount. Furthermore, in the pursuit of lightweight structures and additive manufacturing, nano- and microscale plasticity enables the optimisation of materials with improved strength-to-weight ratios. The study of plasticity at these scales thus offers a gateway to harnessing unique material behaviours, driving innovation and advancement in diverse technological fields.


Dislocation interaction with grain boundaries in Cu: Grain boundaries (GBs) are not necessarily hard barriers to dislocation motion. Former PhD student Reza Hosseinabadi has looked at the transmission of dislocations through twin boundaries in Cu bicrystals, where the barriers to transmission are very small. In his work, size effects on transmission were studied through variation of the pillar diameter where curvature of the dislocation line before cross-slip over the boundary was important (Acta Materialia, 230, 2022, 117841; Materials & Design, 232, 2023, 112164). PhD student Hendrik Holz follows these ideas on, by “tuning” the thermal barriers for dislocation/GB interaction by testing under combinations of cryogenic temperatures and high strain rates, working together with Dr. Raj Ramachandramoorthy. With a similar approach, PhD student Kamran Bhat, supported by the ERC project of Prof. Dehm, has sought to study the influence of GB chemistry on mechanical behaviour. For this purpose, we use Cu-Ag as a model system and compare the mechanical response/deformation behaviour of pure Cu bicrystals to that of Ag segregated Cu bicrystals. The Cu-Ag system is common in electronic components to prevent electromigration, and as Ag is almost immiscible in the Cu matrix it preferentially segregates to GBs and allows us to isolate the GB chemistry and its effect on the mechanical response. We utilise in situ micropillar compression coupled with nanoindentation and scratch testing, complimented by atom probe tomography and TEM analyses, and see significant effects of Ag-segregation to GBs on the strength (Acta Materialia, 255, 2023, 119081).

The concepts determined by testing bicrystals of Cu are extended to thin-films of Ag-doped Cu, containing a complex nanocrystalline nanotwinned structure. The segregation of Ag to Cu twin/GB nodes through mild heat treatment leads to an increase of the strength, where through collaboration with Dr. Tobias Brink we seek to understand and better describe mechanistically dislocation/GB interactions by atomistic simulations.

The unusual mechanical behaviour of B2 FeAl compounds: Fe-Al-based alloys with maximum Al contents of 50 at.% are regarded as potential structural material candidates for applications up to 800 °C owing to their excellent corrosion resistance, wear-resistance, relative low density, and comparably lower cost than high-alloyed steels or Ni-base superalloys. Nevertheless, B2-ordered FeAl alloys possess constitutional and thermal vacancies, which subsequently affect the alloy strength. Consequently, a direct evaluation and comparison of the mechanical properties of B2 FeAl alloys is in principle not possible if the alloys have different thermal histories or processing routes. Therefore, the aim of PhD student Jung-Soo Lee’s project, in a DFG-funded collaboration with Dr. Frank Stein and KIT, is to measure and compare the mechanical properties of different compositions of FeAl alloys using in situ micromechanical techniques by producing them in a single diffusion couple specimen. Based on this research, we aim to reveal the fundamental interrelation of the parameters (Al content, vacancy concentration, temperature etc.) on the mechanical properties, and couple to the results on larger specimens at KIT.


High-temperature deformation of iron oxide single crystals: Iron oxides are important materials in application-relevant systems, such as steel production from iron ores or in photocatalytic systems. The high-temperature mechanical properties of hematite, magnetite or wüstite are not well established, however, in particular at small length-scales. From previous work in the group, we know that at small length-scales the plasticity of oxide single crystals can vary significantly regarding active deformation mechanisms (AdvancedFunctionalMaterials, 32, 48, 2022, 2207960). As such, in the project of PhD student Shreehard Sahu, funded by the KSB-Stiftung through project FeOx-HOTMECH, we seek to determine the high-temperature plastic deformation mechanisms for small volumes of the various iron oxides using micropillar compression in situ, and link this to the small-scale brittle-to-ductile transitions through microcantilever fracture.

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