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What is Decarburization?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

Decarburization is a change in the structure and content of steel in which some of the carbon in the surface layer or layers of the steel is lost. In total decarburization, the upper layer of the steel is composed primarily of ferrite materials, while in partial decarburization, a mixture of materials may be present. Microscopy can be used to identify carbon loss, and other testing techniques are also available.

In some cases, decarburization may be deliberately accomplished. In other instances, it's a byproduct of corrosion or poor handling techniques. Classically, decarburization occurs when steel is heated in an environment where oxygen is present, leading to oxidation and loss of carbon. As a result of decarburization, the metal loses some of its strength and ductility, and it may develop cracks which make it vulnerable to breaking. The surface of the steel may also become scaly.

When decarburization is viewed as a defect, materials testing is used on steel to confirm that the level of carbon loss is acceptable. If it is not, the steel will not be used. Loss of carbon can make structural steel less stable, erode the performance of steel tools, and cause a variety of other problems with equipment made from steel. In some settings where it is deliberately desired, testing can also be used to determine which level of decarburization has been achieved.

The rate of decarburization can be controlled. If it is not desired, protective coatings can be used on the steel to prevent corrosion, or it can be heated in an inert atmosphere which lacks oxygen. A number of systems to control carbon loss are available through companies which make equipment used in processing and working steel, and it is also possible to develop a custom system for a specific need. Conversely, the flow of oxygen into a furnace can be controlled to achieve a desired level of carbon loss.

When steel components fail, as when a bridge collapses, materials testing can be used to learn more about the steel and to identify any problems which could have contributed to the fail. Decarburization can be involved in the failure of steel components, and it leaves a clear signature behind which makes it hard to miss. In the process of identifying the cause of a problem, inspectors may also be able to determine who is responsible. For example, a construction company might have used substandard steel to cut costs.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon953728 — On May 28, 2014

Anti-decarb coating? Will you please elaborate?

By anon268014 — On May 12, 2012

A number of steel rolling mills in India use the most economical method of using anti-decarb coatings for preventing decarburization of steel. This is achieved by applying a protective anti-decarb coating on the billets before charging them into the re-heating furnace. The protective coating acts as a barrier between oxygen and metal, thereby preventing decarburization or substantially reducing it.

By anon92602 — On Jun 29, 2010

What is the effect of decarburization on steel fasteners (steel grades AISI 10B21, 15B21, 1541, 15B41,4140)

How can we avoid it? Please suggest.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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