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Ultrahard nanotwinned cubic boron nitride

Abstract

Cubic boron nitride (cBN) is a well known superhard material that has a wide range of industrial applications. Nanostructuring of cBN is an effective way to improve its hardness by virtue of the Hall–Petch effect—the tendency for hardness to increase with decreasing grain size1,2. Polycrystalline cBN materials are often synthesized by using the martensitic transformation of a graphite-like BN precursor, in which high pressures and temperatures lead to puckering of the BN layers3. Such approaches have led to synthetic polycrystalline cBN having grain sizes as small as 14 nm (refs 1, 2, 4, 5). Here we report the formation of cBN with a nanostructure dominated by fine twin domains of average thickness 3.8 nm. This nanotwinned cBN was synthesized from specially prepared BN precursor nanoparticles possessing onion-like nested structures with intrinsically puckered BN layers and numerous stacking faults. The resulting nanotwinned cBN bulk samples are optically transparent with a striking combination of physical properties: an extremely high Vickers hardness (exceeding 100 GPa, the optimal hardness of synthetic diamond), a high oxidization temperature (1,294 °C) and a large fracture toughness (>12 MPa m1/2, well beyond the toughness of commercial cemented tungsten carbide, 10 MPa m1/2). We show that hardening of cBN is continuous with decreasing twin thickness down to the smallest sizes investigated, contrasting with the expected reverse Hall–Petch effect below a critical grain size or the twin thickness of 10–15 nm found in metals and alloys.

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Figure 1: Starting oBN nanoparticles and nt-cBN bulk synthesized at 15 GPa and 1,800 °C.
Figure 2: Microstructure of synthetic nt-cBN.
Figure 3: The HV of an nt-cBN bulk sample as a function of applied load ( F).
Figure 4: HV as a function of average grain size ( d ) or twin thickness ( λ ) for polycrystalline cBN bulk materials.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. K. Yu for help with the differential scanning calorimetry measurements. Y.J.T. and Z.Y.L. acknowledge financial support from the Ministry of Science and Technology of China (grants 2011CB808205 and 2010CB731605), Y.J.T., D.L.Y., Y.M.M. and J.L.H. are grateful for financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grants 51121061, 51172197, 11025418 and 91022029), and Y.B.W. acknowledges financial support from the US National Science Foundation (EAR-0968456).

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Authors

Contributions

Y.J.T. conceived the project. Y.J.T., B.X., D.L.Y. and Y.B.W. designed the experiments. C.C.T. synthesized oBN precursors, Y.J.T., B.X., D.L.Y., Y.B.W., Y.F.G., K.L. and Z.S.Z. performed the HPHT experiments, Y.B.J. and W.T.H. performed TEM observations, and B.W. performed molecular dynamics simulations. Y.J.T., B.X., D.L.Y., Y.M.M., Y.B.W., L.-M.W., J.L.H. and Z.Y.L. analysed the data. Y.J.T., B.X., Y.M.M. and Y.B.W. co-wrote the paper. Y.J.T., B.X. and D.L.Y. contributed equally to the study. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Yongjun Tian.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Tian, Y., Xu, B., Yu, D. et al. Ultrahard nanotwinned cubic boron nitride. Nature 493, 385–388 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11728

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