Letter | Published:

Ultrastrong steel via minimal lattice misfit and high-density nanoprecipitation

Nature volume 544, pages 460464 (27 April 2017) | Download Citation

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Next-generation high-performance structural materials are required for lightweight design strategies and advanced energy applications. Maraging steels, combining a martensite matrix with nanoprecipitates, are a class of high-strength materials with the potential for matching these demands1,2,3. Their outstanding strength originates from semi-coherent precipitates4,5, which unavoidably exhibit a heterogeneous distribution that creates large coherency strains, which in turn may promote crack initiation under load6,7,8. Here we report a counterintuitive strategy for the design of ultrastrong steel alloys by high-density nanoprecipitation with minimal lattice misfit. We found that these highly dispersed, fully coherent precipitates (that is, the crystal lattice of the precipitates is almost the same as that of the surrounding matrix), showing very low lattice misfit with the matrix and high anti-phase boundary energy, strengthen alloys without sacrificing ductility. Such low lattice misfit (0.03 ± 0.04 per cent) decreases the nucleation barrier for precipitation, thus enabling and stabilizing nanoprecipitates with an extremely high number density (more than 1024 per cubic metre) and small size (about 2.7 ± 0.2 nanometres). The minimized elastic misfit strain around the particles does not contribute much to the dislocation interaction, which is typically needed for strength increase. Instead, our strengthening mechanism exploits the chemical ordering effect that creates backstresses (the forces opposing deformation) when precipitates are cut by dislocations. We create a class of steels, strengthened by Ni(Al,Fe) precipitates, with a strength of up to 2.2 gigapascals and good ductility (about 8.2 per cent). The chemical composition of the precipitates enables a substantial reduction in cost compared to conventional maraging steels owing to the replacement of the essential but high-cost alloying elements cobalt and titanium with inexpensive and lightweight aluminium. Strengthening of this class of steel alloy is based on minimal lattice misfit to achieve maximal precipitate dispersion and high cutting stress (the stress required for dislocations to cut through coherent precipitates and thus produce plastic deformation), and we envisage that this lattice misfit design concept may be applied to many other metallic alloys.

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  • 27 April 2017

    The y-axis units were corrected in Fig. 1a; an additional statement was included in the Acknowledgements.


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This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant numbers 51531001, 51422101, 51671018, 51271212 and 51371003), the 111 Project (grant number B07003), the International S&T Cooperation Program of China (grant number 2015DFG52600), the Program for Changjiang Scholars and Innovative Research Team in University (grant number IRT_14R05) and the Projects of SKL-AMM-USTB (grant numbers 2016Z-04, 2016-09, 2016Z-16). Y.W. acknowledges the Top-Notch Young Talents Program and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities. We thank X. Xu at Tongling University, Z. Fan at the China Academy of Engineering Physics, Y. Qiao, L. You and G. Liu at the University of Science and Technology Beijing, and Y. Tian at Tohoku University for help with sample preparation and discussions. M.Y. and B.G. are grateful to U. Tezins and A. Sturm for their support of the focused ion beam and APT facilities at the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung. This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under contract number DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Author information


  1. State Key Laboratory for Advanced Metals and Materials, University of Science and Technology Beijing, Beijing 100083, China

    • Suihe Jiang
    • , Hui Wang
    • , Yuan Wu
    • , Xiongjun Liu
    • , Honghong Chen
    • , Yandong Wang
    •  & Zhaoping Lu
  2. Department of Microstructure Physics and Alloy Design, Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung GmbH, Max-Planck-Straße, Düsseldorf 40237, Germany

    • Mengji Yao
    • , Baptiste Gault
    • , Dirk Ponge
    •  & Dierk Raabe
  3. WPI Advanced Institute for Materials Research, Tohoku University, Sendai 980-8577, Japan

    • Akihiko Hirata
    •  & Mingwei Chen
  4. Mathematics for Advanced Materials-OIL, AIST-Tohoku University, Sendai 980-8577, Japan

    • Akihiko Hirata
  5. Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore Maryland 21218, USA

    • Mingwei Chen


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Z.L. designed the study. S.J., H.C., H.W, X.L. and Y. Wu carried out the main experiments. S.J., H.W., Z.L. and D.R. analysed the data and wrote the main draft of the paper. M.Y., B.G., D.P. and D.R. prepared the APT samples and interpreted the results. M.C. and A.H. conducted the STEM characterization. Y.Wa. conducted the synchrotron experiments. All authors contributed to the discussion of the results, and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Zhaoping Lu.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks M. Moody, J. Morris Jr and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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