Investigating Deformation and Failure Mechanisms in Nanoscale Multilayer Metallic Composites

H. M. Zbib; D. F. Bahr


Over the history of materials science there are many examples of materials discoveries that have made superlative materials; the strongest, lightest, or toughest material is almost always a goal when we invent new materials. However, often these have been a result of enormous trial and error approaches. A new methodology, one in which researchers design, from the atoms up, new ultra-strong materials for use in energy applications, is taking hold within the science and engineering community. This project focused on one particular new classification of materials; nanolaminate metallic composites. These materials, where two metallic materials are intimately bonded and layered over and over to form sheets or coatings, have been shown over the past decade to reach strengths over 10 times that of their constituents. However, they are not yet widely used in part because while extremely strong (they don’t permanently bend), they are also not particularly tough (they break relatively easily when notched). Our program took a coupled approach to investigating new materials systems within the laminate field. We used computational materials science to explore ways to institute new deformation mechanisms that occurred when a tri-layer, rather than the more common bi-layer system was created. Our predictions suggested that copper-nickel or copper-niobium composites (two very common bi-layer systems) with layer thicknesses on the order of 20 nm and then layered 100’s of times, would be less tough than a copper-nickel-niobium metallic composite of similar thicknesses. In particular, a particular mode of permanent deformation, cross-slip, could be activated only in the tri-layer system; the crystal structure of the other bi-layers would prohibit this particular mode of deformation. We then experimentally validated this predication using a wide range of tools. We utilized a DOE user facility, the Center for Integrated Nanotechnology (CINT), to fabricate, for the first time, these tri-layer composites. CINT formed nanolaminate composites were tested in tension, with bulge testing, using nanoindentation, and using micro-compression testing to demonstrate that the tri-layer films were indeed tougher and hardened more during deformation (they got stronger as we deformed them) than equivalent bi-layers. The seven graduate students, 4 post-docs and research faculty, and the two faculty co-PI’s were able to create a collaborated computational prediction and experimental validation team to demonstrate the benefits of this class of materials to the community. The computational work crossed from atomistic to bulk simulations, and the experiments coupled form nm-scale to the mm scale; closely matching the simulations. The simulations provided viable mechanisms that explained the observed results, and new experimental results were used to push the boundaries of the simulation tools. Over the life of the 7 years of this program we proved that tri-layer nanolaminate metallic composite systems exceeded the mechanical performance of bi-layer systems if the right materials were chosen, and that the mechanism responsible for this was tied to the cross slip of dislocations. With 30 journal publications resulting from this work we have broadly disseminated this family of results to the scientific community.