Cyclic deformation leads to defect healing and strengthening of small- volume metal crystals

ZJ Wang and QJ Li and YN Cui and ZL Liu and E Ma and J Li and J Sun and Z Zhuang and M Dao and ZW Shan and S Suresh, PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 112, 13502-13507 (2015).

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1518200112

When microscopic and macroscopic specimens of metals are subjected to cyclic loading, the creation, interaction, and accumulation of defects lead to damage, cracking, and failure. Here we demonstrate that when aluminum single crystals of submicrometer dimensions are subjected to low-amplitude cyclic deformation at room temperature, the density of preexisting dislocation lines and loops can be dramatically reduced with virtually no change of the overall sample geometry and essentially no permanent plastic strain. This "cyclic healing" of the metal crystal leads to significant strengthening through dramatic reductions in dislocation density, in distinct contrast to conventional cyclic strain hardening mechanisms arising from increases in dislocation density and interactions among defects in microcrystalline and macrocrystalline metals and alloys. Our real-time, in situ transmission electron microscopy observations of tensile tests reveal that pinned dislocation lines undergo shakedown during cyclic straining, with the extent of dislocation unpinning dependent on the amplitude, sequence, and number of strain cycles. Those unpinned mobile dislocations moving close enough to the free surface of the thin specimens as a result of such repeated straining are then further attracted to the surface by image forces that facilitate their egress from the crystal. These results point to a versatile pathway for controlled mechanical annealing and defect engineering in submicrometer-sized metal crystals, thereby obviating the need for thermal annealing or significant plastic deformation that could cause change in shape and/or dimensions of the specimen.

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