Ni nanocluster composites for enhanced impact resistance of multilayered arc-PVD ceramic coatings

J. P. Best; M. Polyakov; D. Shinde; M. H. Colliander; J. Wehrs; J. Michler; M. Morstein

Surface and Coatings Technology 354 (2018) 360-368

Optimally, hard protective coatings should effectively absorb impact energy to reduce the likelihood of failure events. In this work, an arc-PVD approach was utilised for the deposition of thick ceramic multilayer AlCrTiN/CrN-based coatings containing a distribution of metallic nickel inclusions throughout sequential CrN-based interlayers. The aim of such coatings is to provide resistance to impact loading in intensive application environments, such as drop forging of steel and turbine blades exposed to abrasive particles. The structure and micro-structural development of the ceramic was first investigated using transmission electron microscopy, where discrete Ni inclusions were observed as both larger discs (d ~ 600–800 nm, h ~ 200 nm) and smaller (d ~ 50 nm) nanoclusters. Confirmation of the distribution and nanocluster chemistry was achieved using atom probe tomography. For mono-block coatings, XRD data showed drastically reduced internal stresses as a result of the Ni inclusions, enabling the creation of thicker protective coatings which minimise substrate stress concentration upon loading. Nickel inclusion additionally provides a softening of the containing hard ceramic layer, allowing for tuning of mechanical properties. Supporting this idea, in situ micropillar compression measurements of the multi-layered coating systems showed that Ni clusters hindered crack propagation through the coating during failure, while the fracture strength could be increased by incorporating both Ti and Ni in the softer CrN-based layer. High-load impact testing highlighted the influence of Ni ‘shock absorbers’ in reducing circumferential cracking, which was further confirmed by an industrial die forging test that demonstrated a 15–22% life-time increase compared to a much thicker hard-chrome plated reference. The results of this study demonstrate an exciting way to produce Ni nanocluster integrated hard ceramic multi-layers using arc-PVD in a single processing step. Such tuneable thin-film composite systems show great promise in minimising damage from impact loading, even under severe working conditions such as in hot forging.