Structural and chemical embrittlement of grain boundaries by impurities: A general theory and first-principles calculations for copper

Alexander Lozovoi, Anthony Paxton, M.W. Finnis

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98 Citations (Scopus)


First-principles calculations of the Sigma 5(310)[001] symmetric tilt grain boundary in Cu with Bi, Na, and Ag substitutional impurities provide evidence that in the phenomenon of Bi embrittlement of Cu grain boundaries electronic effects do not play a major role; on the contrary, the embrittlement is mostly a structural or "size" effect. Na is predicted to be nearly as good an embrittler as Bi, whereas Ag does not embrittle the boundary in agreement with experiment. While we reject the prevailing view that "electronic" effects (i.e., charge transfer) are responsible for embrittlement, we do not exclude the role of chemistry. However, numerical results show a striking equivalence between the alkali metal Na and the semimetal Bi, small differences being accounted for by their contrasting "size" and "softness" (defined here). In order to separate structural and chemical effects unambiguously if not uniquely, we model the embrittlement process by taking the system of grain boundary and free surfaces through a sequence of precisely defined gedanken processes; each of these representing a putative mechanism. We thereby identify three mechanisms of embrittlement by substitutional impurities, two of which survive in the case of embrittlement or cohesion enhancement by interstitials. Two of the three are purely structural and the third contains both structural and chemical elements that by their very nature cannot be further unraveled. We are able to take the systems we study through each of these stages by explicit computer simulations and assess the contribution of each to the net reduction in intergranular cohesion. The conclusion we reach is that embrittlement by both Bi and Na is almost exclusively structural in origin; that is, the embrittlement is a size effect.
Original languageEnglish
Article number155416
Pages (from-to)155416-1-155416-13
Number of pages13
JournalPhysical Review B (Condensed Matter)
Issue number15
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics

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