Embrittlement by the segregation of impurity elements to grain boundaries is one of a small number of phenomena that can lead to metallurgical failure by fast fracture1. Here we settle a question that has been debated for over a hundred years2: how can minute traces of bismuth in copper cause this ductile metal to fail in a brittle manner? Three hypotheses for Bi embrittlement of Cu exist: two assign an electronic effect to either a strengthening3 or weakening4 of bonds, the third postulates a simple atomic size effect5. Here we report first principles quantum mechanical calculations that allow us to reject the electronic hypotheses, while supporting a size effect. We show that upon segregation to the grain boundary, the large Bi atoms weaken the interatomic bonding by pushing apart the Cu atoms at the interface. The resolution of the mechanism underlying grain boundary weakening should be relevant for all cases of embrittlement by oversize impurities.
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Financial support was provided by EPSRC.
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
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Schweinfest, R., Paxton, A. & Finnis, M. Bismuth embrittlement of copper is an atomic size effect. Nature 432, 1008–1011 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03198
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