9.4 Phosphorous Steel
9.4.1 Phosphorous Steel - an Orderly Introduction
|Why We Need to Look at Phosphorous Steel|
|Now lets have part of the truth about
in steel - the rest will follow later. Phosphorous was and still is an
undesired element in almost all old and modern steels. Only recently it is used
- carefully - as an useful
element in some advanced steels. Cold shortness is one of the major problems it
causes. Phosphorous increases the DTB
transition temperature; brittle steel at cold weather results.
But so far I have consistently maintained that phosphorous is supposed to be not always harmful like sulfur; it might even be beneficial. So what are its good points?
|Phosphorous can be used to harden steel. So long as it is atomically dissolved it is one of the three outstanding solution hardeners; look a the diagram in the link. What's more, it might protect the steel from corrosion. The uncorroded part of the patern-welded sword shown here was phosphorous steel for sure. Phosphorous also changes the look of your steel. It makes steel brighter or "whiter" and that was of large importance for pattern welding techniques, where the pattern should be clearly visible.|
|Nevertheless, in the 19th century a
lot of time, money and effort went into getting phosphorous out of iron; I'll
get to that. Nowadays we rarely employ phosphorous (P) for modern steel - in
contrast to sulfur (S)! I've stated that sulfur is always bad before, but there are exceptions. It is
exactly the "bad" properties of sulfur that are made useful for some
So why do I devote a whole sub-chapter to phosphorous steel? Simple:
|Moreover, since many European ores tend to contain plenty of phosphorous, dealing with its many effects exercised steelmakers mightily until not so long ago. I will cover that later in some more detail.|
|Before I get started, one more word
to the wise: In the light of more recent insights, it is quite possible that
not everything labelled "phosphorous steel" in the past is actually
phosphorous (P) steel. It might be steel containing
arsenic (As) or an As - P mixture.
It's not so simple to tell the difference without rather modern analytical tools. I will get to that later, too.
|The Ancient Iron Pillar in India that Does Not Rust|
|In Delhi you find a
famous 1600-year-old huge iron pillar
(7 m tall, 6 tons in weight), forged together from many pieces of wrought iron
with low carbon content that simply does not rust. Its "secret"
has recently been unveiled by Indian scientists. The relatively large amounts
of phosphorous in the iron and in slag
particles within the iron, catalyzed the formation of a special kind of
rust, so-called d-FeOOH ("Misawite") plus a layer of crystalline
phosphates that together form a stable protective layer on its surface.
This basic paper from R. Balasubramaniam relates the story of the pillar in great detail and goes into great length to describe its microstructure and the history of its investigation. His second article is shorter and asks if we can learn anything from the old phosphorous-iron? Not surprisingly, his answer is: yes, indeed!
I doubt very much, however, that the international steel community is listening.
|The New Dehli iron
pillar, while certainly a work of art and technological cunning, is actually
made from a poor kind of steel. Its composition varies and the carbon
concentration is generally low. Typically it contains somewhat more phosphorous
than carbon. In consequence, it shows the typical phosphorous "ghost structure" (see below) when a
structural etch is
Moreover, it contains a lot of slag inclusions. Really - look a the the picture below! The large black stuff is slag. I don't want to be a spoil sport, but if a composite material like this can still be called "steel" is questionable. In any case, a sword made from that material may not have corroded easily but I don't believe you would have been happy with it in a fight.
|The Dehli pillar illustrates quite
nicely that whenever you attempted to make steel in ancient times, you may have
run into phosphorous (P) as one of the major alloying elements in your steel.
That was true then, and it still is true now. Part of the reason for this is
that the "bog
iron", used for millennia to make iron and steel in large
parts of the world, contained relatively large amounts of phosphorous. Regular
ore in large parts of the word is often phosphorous-rich, too.
Part of the steel technology of old thus followed the old anglo-saxon proverb "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em", and made and used primarily phosphorous steel or phosphorous-carbon and not "plain" carbon steel.
|You, the smith of old, did not have
they the faintest idea about phosphorous in your iron, of course. When you made
(or more likely bought) a piece of iron / steel, you didn't call it carbon or
phosphorous steel. You differentiated the various kinds of iron / steel
available in different ways - and we do not know much about that. Perhaps you
knew that the "more shiny" steel needed to be treated in a different
If you belonged to the smiths who could, for example, make a Roman pattern welded sword of the 3rd century, you must have had had a whole bag of tricks up your sleeve, and it is doubtful that we know them all. I have tried to collect some of that in a science module but we can never be sure of what we missed.
|So you actually made
phosphorous steel swords. How
good they were - I don't know. Many are still around and displayed in museums
(not necessarily meaning that the
that). They may be a bit worse for wear but not as badly corroded as carbon
If those phosphorous steel swords would have been an inferior product that got you killed easily, they wouldn't have been on the market for centuries in the good old times.
You will see that phosphorous is just as efficient as carbon and nitrogen (N) for solid solution hardening of ferrite, just look at this figure again. Ferrite is the bcc or a phase of iron / steel and that, according to the phase diagram, is what we will have in the iron - phosphorous system for very low phosphorous concentrations at room temperature. So you actually can harden ferritic iron with a small amount of phosphorous.
|In what follows I will first give the "science" of phosphorous steel a quick look, and than consider old phosphorous steel a bit. The issue will come up again in the chapters to follow, where I deal with iron / steel making and swords in more detail|
|The Science of Phosphorous Steel|
|Let's do a laboratory kind of
(thought) experiment and make an ideal phosphorous or
P-steel. R. Balasubramaniam (or
rather, I suppose, a grad student) has done exactly that; look it up in the
second article mentioned
Or maybe don't. If you got so far with this Hyperscript and understood the vital parts of it, you will now go straight to the jugular and tell me: "Give me the iron (Fe) - phosphorous (P) phase diagram. Knowing now a bit about hardening mechanism in general, plus having the phase diagram", you are telling me, "will allow me to make some prediction about P-steel. How difficult can it be".
|OK - here goes. Here is the iron - phosphorous phase diagram. If you compare it to the iron- carbon phase diagram - you probably will get a bit confused. There are some similarities, allright, but especially for the low phosphorous part the phase diagram is quite different.|
| There is hardly any austenite (the
yellow g phase). That's because phosphorous
does what is known as "closing the g-field"; just like arsenic (As), silicon (Si),
aluminium (Al), beryllium (Be), titanium (Ti), vanadium (V), molybdenum (Mo)
and chromium (Cr).
More to that in the science link.
|Below is an enlargement of the
important part of the Fe-P phase diagram. It is actually easy to understand.
Just assume that phosphorous hates the g-phase or austenite so much that it will do
everything to avoid it. Ideally there should be no g-phase.
On the other hand, pure iron must have the fcc g-phase between 911 oC (1672 oF) and 1392 oC (2538 oF); this is symbolized by the fat dark blue line.
|So at compositions close to pure iron the phase diagram as shown below is just the best compromise between totally conflicting demands. By the way; I used different colors for the same phases or phase mixtures in the two phase diagrams shown here. I did that not only because I'm lazy and didn't check what color I used before but also to demonstrate that those colors are completely meaningless. Their only job is to make the pictures prettier and to guide the eye.|
|Now go ahead and derive the
microstructure you are going to see at room temperature, starting with the red
point I'll give you an hint: Looking at the microstructure at room
temperature with some etchant that is sensitive to phosphorous, you will find a
"ghost structure". The
picture below shows some "ghosts" from the New Dehli pillar.
Can you do it? I doubt it. That's why I included a few helpful sketches in the picture above.
|What do we see? We know that we must have
ferrite, and the dark lines, as always, are the grain boundaries between the
ferrite or a grains. The darker areas are the
"ghosts". They become especially well visible if you play with the
focus of your microscope a bit. Depending on your focus setting they could also
be brighter than the rest.
The ghosts in the picture above are actually depressions in the ferrite grains. You thus can focus either on the lower surface within the depressions or the higher surface; both are seen best at some defocus conditions at low magnification.
But why should the etchant remove more material in some areas? Because the ghost are phosphorous-poor regions, etching a bit faster than the phosphorous-rich areas. They are the "memories" of the phosphorous-poor austenite grains that formed within the ferrite grains and then disappeared again.
|Let's see how that works:|
| At the temperature where we start in
the example above we have coexisting ferrite and austenite grains. If you allow
enough time at the starting temperature, the grains will be rather large, with
the ferrite grains being phosphorous-rich (about
We have only ferrite now but the former austenite regions will now be phosphorous-poor ferrite embedded into phosphorous-rich ferrite. Since most etchants dissolve phosphorous-poor ferrite a little faster than phosphorous-rich ferrite, the phosphorous-rich regions stand up like mesas on the plane of the phosphorous-poor background. Here are your ghosts!
The link not only gives more details but also points out why phosphorous ghosts are not quite as simple as I make them look here.
|But beware! Any alloying element that
is an a-stabilizer must have a phase diagram
similar to that of iron-phosphorous for low concentrations and thus produce
In either case, if you shall see "ghost" after some defect etching depends on how well the alloying element could equilibrate its concentration during cooling (not all that well, probably) and in particular if your etchant picks up small concentration differences of some element being in there in small average concentrations. That is rather unlikely - except the element in question does similar things as phosphorous and that is probably true for arsenic (As) and maybe antimony (Sb).
It is quite possible (if not very likely) that ancient steels that have been classified as "phosphorous steel" because a ghost structure was seen after etching, actually contain either phosphorous, arsenic, antimony, or a mix of those elements. Research into this is just starting.
|What else besides ghost structures might we find in phosphorous steel? Iron-phosphide precipitates (Fe3P), of course. Look at the phase diagram!|
|Considering that we usually do not
have "plain" phosphorous steel but steel with a mix of carbon and
phosphorous (plus whatever else might be there), things tend to be even more
There is no need to delve deeper into this, however.
|Knowing the microstructure is
nevertheless very important. It gives clues as to the heat treatment and the
hardness and ductility of phosphorous steel, and that is no mean feat!
Unfortunately the microstructure doesn't tell us much about other interesting
properties of phosphorous steel:
|The long and short of all this is:
Phosphorous in iron has exercised iron and steel people very much throughout
the millennia - and it will keep doing this! It is a kind of thorn in the soft
underbelly of iron and steel science that causes permanent pain, reminding us
that we are not yet finished with Material Science in general and steel science
On the other hand it was used a lot. Maybe just out of necessity because you couldn't avoid it but evidence is mounting that our forefathers used the stuff deliberately and possibly even made it on purpose!
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)