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Wear 263 (2007) 137148

Wear mechanisms in abrasion and erosion of WC/Co

and related hardmetals
M.G. Gee

, A. Gant, B. Roebuck
National Physical Laboratory, Hampton Road, Teddington, Middlesex TW16 5PT, United Kingdom
Received 10 September 2006; received in revised form 20 December 2006; accepted 21 December 2006
Available online 26 March 2007
This paper describes observations of wear mechanisms made through examination of the surfaces of WC hardmetals samples tested in a number
of different laboratory abrasion and erosion wear tests.
The tests that were used included ASTM G65 and ASTM B611 abrasive tests, scratch testing at a range of different loads and with different
indenter geometries, and gas blast erosion.
Evaluation of the dependence of the magnitude of wear on hardmetal microstructural parameters such as WC grain size and binder phase content
was also carried out. It was found that the best differentiation between materials was found when the results were plotted against the inverse square
root of the WC grain size.
Crown Copyright 2007 Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Wear; Abrasion; Hardmetals; Erosion; Wear mechanisms
1. Introduction
WC/Co and related hardmetals are materials that are tech-
nologically extremely important. They are used extensively in
applications from cutting tools and mining bits, through dies
and press moulds to teeth on gravel extractors and similar earth
moving equipment.
They are composite materials with a hard phase, normally
WC that has a hexagonal crystal form, but also cubic carbides
such as TiC and TaC. The binder phase is normally cobalt, but
this is often alloyed with nickel to increase the corrosion resis-
tance of the materials, and always incorporates tungsten and car-
bon through the liquid phase sintering manufacturing process.
In many applications of WC based hardmetals their resis-
tance to wear is crucial and determines ultimate performance.
Optimisation of wear resistance in any particular application
is therefore a major consideration in the development of WC
Wear testing provides information on the wear resistance of
WC hardmetals under well controlled conditions. If wear in a

Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 2089436374.

E-mail address: (M.G. Gee).
particular application is the main concern, then correct choice
of the test method that best matches the application is important.
The only test method that has been specically standardised for
WC based hardmetals is the ASTM B611 steel wheel abrasion
test [1], although other standardised tests such as the ASTM
G65 dry sand rubber wheel test [2] and the ASTM G76 gas
blast erosion test [3] are also suitable. In many cases, however,
specic tests need to be developed that simulate the application
conditions better than the standardised tests allow.
The results of wear tests can be made more widely appli-
cable if an understanding of the different mechanisms of wear
that occur is developed. This can be used to develop predictions
of how the magnitude of wear will change as the application
conditions are varied.
There is a long history of the examination of the wear
behaviour of WC based hardmetals. Much of the early work has
been concerned with the forensic examination of WCCo com-
ponents used in mining and mineral extraction applications; this
has been combined with more recent laboratory based testing,
and attempts to develop some understanding of the mecha-
nisms of wear that occur in abrasion and erosion [426]. Often
these studies have been combined with an evaluation of the
microstructure and mechanical performance of the materials, so
that information on how the wear resistance alters with changes
0043-1648/$ see front matter. Crown Copyright 2007 Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
138 M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148
Table 1
Summary of test conditions
Applied load (N) Speed (mms
) Contact geometry
Low load scratch test 4 1 50 or 200 m radius diamond
High load scratch test 50 1 200 m radius diamond indenter
ASTM B611 abrasion 198 0.86 660 m alumina grit backed by steel wheel
ASTM G65 abrasion 130 0.78 220 m sand grit backed by rubber or steel wheel
Stepwise erosion NA 70 220 m sand, 20 mm stand off distance, 90

angle of incidence
Micro scratch testing 130, 290 mN 0.1 25 m and 5 m radius indenters
in material make-up can be gathered. Attempts have also been
made to model the wear so that equations linking the wear to
materials properties such as hardness, toughness and grain size
can be developed [2831,16,17].
Although these previous studies have provided a lot of infor-
mation, a detailed understanding of the deformation and fracture
mechanisms that underlies wear is not yet complete.
This paper described recent observations concerning the
detailed mechanisms that occur in the abrasion and erosion wear
of the WC based hardmetals. These observations are discussed
with respect to literature.
2. Experimental details
A number of laboratory test techniques have been used to
generate worn surfaces of WCCo hardmetals. Many of the
results of these tests have been reported earlier. The techniques
Single pass scratch testing [13].
Multiple pass scratch testing [32].
Micro scratch testing [33].
ASTM B611 high stress abrasion testing [20].
ASTM G65 low stress abrasion testing [18,19].
ASTM G76 gas blast erosion testing [34,35].
Abrasioncorrosion testing [36].
The scratch test experiments provide much useful infor-
mation on the mechanisms of wear that occur by providing
a simplied model of abrasion processes through the analy-
sis of the response of the test material to a single abrading
Fig. 1. Multiple low load pass scratching on a coarse grained 20% Co binder phase hardmetal: (a) 5 passes, (b) 100 passes, (c) 100 passes. Sliding direction is left
to right [32].
M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148 139
Fig. 2. Relationship between scratch width and hardness in high load scratch
testing [13].
Recently, the stepwise technique has been developed to pro-
vide very detailed information on the mechanisms that are
occurring [34,35]. In this technique small increments of expo-
sure to wear are made and the same area of the sample is
examined after each exposure. This technique provides infor-
Fig. 3. High load scratch tests on hardmetals: (a) coarse grained WC with 20%
Co and (b) untra-ne grained WCCo hardmetal. Scratch direction is left to right
mation on the time evolution of damage at a microstructural
scale as exposure continues.
The experimental conditions are summarised in Table 1.
A large range of WC/Co materials were examined in these
experiments. Because a large range of different compositions
covering much of the available property space in terms of hard-
ness and toughness was examined, no attempt has been made in
this paper to identify the quantitative test results against mate-
rials properties. The aim of the paper is to show that there is
a consistent set of wear mechanisms that takes place over this
spectrum of properties, so that direct identication of individual
materials is not necessary. Further information is available in the
individual reference articles.
3. Observation of mechanisms
In this section the main features of the mechanisms of wear
in abrasion and erosion are outlined for each of the techniques.
3.1. Multiple low load scratch testing
In multiple pass scratching at a low load, the damage to the
material builds up with the number of repeat scratches (Fig. 1).
At a low number of repeats there is only supercial damage to
the hardmetal with traces of the scratches on the surface of the
sample. When the number of repeat scratches was increased the
base of the scratches was markedly different from the rest of the
microstructure, with a dark contrasting appearance relative to
the rest of the microstructure (Fig. 1b). This layer was shown to
be rich in cobalt by energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry [32].
Closer examination of the base of the scratch shows fracture to
some carbide grains, with fragments of WC re-embedding into
the dark layer. Some of these fragments are very small down
to about 50 nm in size. In experiments on a low binder phase
ultra-ne grain sized hardmetal, the size of WC fragments at
the base of the scratch also decreased considerably, but the dark
contrasting layer was less evident [32].
Fig. 4. Variation of wear volume with sample hardness for range of hardmetals
and for three test wheel conditions described in legend.
140 M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148
3.2. High load scratch testing
In the high load scratch testing, an inverse relationship
between scratch width and scratch hardness was observed
(Fig. 2) [13]. Here scratch hardness is dened to be the load
divided by the projected area supporting the indenter whilst the
indenter is in motion, or H
, where L is the load, and
d is the scratch width. In the experiment on the high binder
phase large grain sized sample, there is considerable fracture
and fragmentation to the WCgrains. There is also re-embedding
of WC grains into the surface cobalt rich layers (Fig. 3a). In the
low binder phase ne grain sized hardmetal, there is again a
reduction in the size of the WC grains at the base of the scratch
(Fig. 3b).
3.3. ASTM G65 abrasion testing
Fig. 4 shows the magnitude of wear for a range of hardmet-
als and the trend for decreasing wear with increasing hardness
[18,19,38]. Three different wheel conditions were used, and it
was found that there was an increase in wear in the sequence wet
rubber >dry rubber >wet steel. A reasonable t to the relation-
Fig. 5. Worn surface of (a), (c) and (e) coarse grained and (b), (d), (f) ultra ne grained hardmetal samples tested in low stress (modied ASTM G65) abrasion test,
(a) and (b): rubber wheel, wet, (c) and (d): rubber wheel, dry, (e) and (f): steel wheel, wet [18,19,37].
M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148 141
Fig. 6. Variation of wear volume with hardness for ASTM B611 tests on range
of hardmetals. The linear t is for an expression of the type V=Aexp(BH)
ship V=Aexp (BH) was found, where V is the wear volume,
H is the sample hardness and A and B are constants. The values
of the constant B (related to the slope of the graphs in Fig. 4)
were similar for the wet and dry rubber, but was larger for the
wet steel tests.
Fig. 5 shows worn surfaces fromsamples tested in the ASTM
G65 test. The binder phase has been removed from the near
surface region of the hardmetals in all cases, and there is a pro-
gression in damage to the WC grains as the severity of the wear
conditions is increased. This is true for both the coarse grained
and the ne grained hardmetals, although it is less obvious for
the latter.
3.4. ASTM B611 abrasion testing
Fig. 6 shows that there is again a decreasing trend in wear with
increasing hardness for a range of hardmetals in this high stress
abrasion test [20,38]. A good t is also found to an expression
of the form V=Aexp(BH), although the results deviate from
this t for hardmetals with a low hardness.
Fig. 7 shows various features of surfaces worn in this test.
Considerable fracture damage to the WC grains takes place
(Fig. 7a and b, again with re-embedment of fragments of WC
into the binder phase (Fig. 7c). Removal of grains or groups
of grains from the surface also occurs (Fig. 7d and e). Fig. 7e
shows howshallowthis re-embedded layer of WCis. Fig. 7f and
g show that sub-surface cracking of the sample also takes places
on some occasions.
Fig. 8 shows micrographs showing the start of a scratch on
the surface of a sample tested in an ASTM B611 test that was
interrupted after only a short test duration. This found fracture
and fragmentation of the WC grains, with re-embeddment into
the surface binder phase. A very prominent feature on some
large grains was the appearance of features, taken to be slip
lines, aligned with the crystallographic orientation of these large
grains. Some fracture was aligned with these features. Opening
of cavities on the trailing edge of large grains was also seen
(Fig. 8c).
3.5. Abrasioncorrosion
In ASTM G65 tests carried out in the presence of corrosive
uids, the type of uid affected the mechanism of wear that
was observed (Fig. 9) [36]. As the pH of the uid is decreased
the disruption to the surface layers of the hardmetal increases,
with progressively more fracture to the WC grains. This was
thought to be due to the removal of more and more binder
phase from the surface layers as the pH is reduced, leading
to reducing mechanical support for the WC grains in the
surface layers with eventual mechanical failure of the WC
3.6. Stepwise erosion
Stepwise gas borne particulate erosion gave a considerable
amount of information on wear mechanisms of hardmetals
[34,35]. In this technique, small aliquots of erodent were
impacted against the sample with repeated high resolution imag-
ing of the same point on the surface.
Fig. 10 shows a sequence of images froma single point on the
surface of a large grained hardmetal. In Fig. 10a the grain in the
centre of the image has been removed at an exposure of 33.5 g
(Fig. 10b). The rest of this sequence shows the build up of plastic
deformation, evidenced by slip lines, with fracture damage and
removal of material at the edges of the grains.
Fig. 11shows another sequence, showingprogressive fracture
damage to a very large WCgrain until its eventual removal from
the surface.
3.7. Micro scratch testing
Fig. 12 shows scratches made on the surface of a sam-
ple of a coarse grained hardmetal [33]. Even at the very low
loads used in these tests considerable plastic deformation and
fracture damage to the WC grains occurs. Fig. 12c shows the
depression of one WC grain relative to the others. Fig. 12d
shows deformation and fracture to three carbide grains at the
edge of the scratch, and plastic deformation to the binder phase
between the grains. Fig. 12e shows howa second scratch over the
same track has considerably increased the fracture damage that
4. Wear mapping
As well as developing a better understanding of the mecha-
nisms of wear that occur, it is also important to dene how the
changes in the wear of WC hardmetals that occur when their
microstructure changes.
The two main microstructural parameters in these materials
are the WC grain size and the binder phase content. Many of
the other mechanical properties such as hardness and toughness
also depend on these microstructural parameters.
In many of the abrasive and erosive tests described in this
paper, there is a clear dependence of wear volume on the hard-
ness of the materials (Figs. 2, 4 and 6). If the results of abrasive
wear tests are plotted against the toughness of the materials,
142 M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148
Fig. 7. Examination of wear surfaces for hardmetals tested in ASTM B611 with 660 m alumina abrasive except where specied, (a) fracture damage, (b) fracture
damage, (c) re-embedding of small fragments of WCparticles, (d) breakaway of areas of material, (e) re-embedded regions at edge between worn surface and polished
cross-section, (f) edge between worn surface and polished cross-section, (g) cross-section. (ad) were taken on coarse grained 6% hardmetal with a hardness of 1221
HV30, (e) on a coarse grained 24% Co hardmetal, and (f) with a coarse grained 9% Co hardmetal with a hardness of 982 HV30, and (g) with a coarse grained 6%
hardmetal. sliding direction in (ad) is from left to right. In (g) sliding direction is out of plane of paper [20,37].
M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148 143
Fig. 8. Single scratch at entrance region on surface of sample subjected to short term test for 6% hardmetal with hardness of 1590 HV30: (a) re-embedding of
WC fragments 150 m from start of scratch, (b) is central region of (a), (c) gaps at base of scratch 350 m from start of scratch, (d) fracture damage aligned with
crystallographic orientation at base of scratch 350 m from start. Sliding direction is from left to right.
Fig. 9. Wear surfaces of hardmetal 14% cobalt coarse grained hardmetal subjected to abrasion in ASTM G65 test with 220 m silica sand under uids of (a) pH 13
calcium hydroxide solution, (b) pH 6.3 deionised water, (c) pH 2.6 sulphuric acid, (d) pH 1.1 sulphuric acid. Sliding direction is left to right [38].
144 M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148
Fig. 10. Sequence of micrographs showing development of damage on large grain sized hardmetal sample after exposue of (a) 27.5 g, (b) 33.5 g, (c) 37.5 g, 41.5 g
it can be seen that there is also a dependence of wear volume
of the toughness of the sample (Fig. 13). However, both the
dependence on hardness and the dependence on toughness do
not differentiate easilywithrespect tothe underlyingmicrostruc-
tural parameters that describe the materials.
Clear differentiation between the different materials is
achieved if the abrasive wear volume is plotted against the
inverse square root of the average WC grain size (Fig. 14). This
graph also shows the empirical ts to the experimental data for
the 6 and 10% binder phase materials.
5. Discussion
The results presented in this paper shed light on the mecha-
nisms of wear that occur in the abrasion and erosion of WC/Co
hardmetals. Wear occurrs by the accumulation of damage, frac-
ture and removal of single grains of WC. The steps that take
place in this process are:
Removal of binder phase fromthe surface layer of the sample.
Plastic deformation and grooving of binder phase.
Accumulation of plastic strain in WC grains.
Fracture and fragmentation of individual WC grains.
Cracking between WC grains.
Breakaway of unsupported WC grains.
These steps do not all observed to the same degree in all
the tests. Thus, in low stress abrasion tests fragmentation of
WC grains is less common than in high stress abrasion tests.
Nevertheless, most of these aspects do occur.
The removal of binder phase from the surface occurs very
quickly under most conditions of wear examined in this paper,
with, for example, almost immediate removal of the binder phase
in gas blast erosion [34]. This loss of binder phase weakens
the mechanical strength and structure of the surface layers of
the hardmetal, leading to increased stressing of the surface WC
grains. Some exceptions to this behaviour do occur, particularly
in the case of repeated scratch testing where there can be a build
up of a dark contrasting cobalt containing layer at the surface
of the scratch. This type of layer is formed in repeated scratch
testing as removal of the cobalt binder phase does not occur as
readily once a scratch groove is formed, leading to the retention
of some cobalt at the base of the scratch.
No evidence for binder phase extrusion [12] was observed
in the results reported in this paper. This is partly because in
many of the types of wear examined such as abrasion, the wear
processes that are taking place would very quickly remove any
binder phase that was forced to the surface.
There was also no evidence at all for long multi-grain cracks
on the exposed wear surface; this contradicts some theories of
the wear of these materials that expect that wear occurs by the
lateral crack mechanism that occurs in indentation [36,29,30].
M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148 145
Fig. 11. Sequences of images from area on large grain size sample: (a) after 0.1 g exposure, (b) 13.5 g exposure, (c) 17.5 g exposure, (d) 21.5 g exposure, (e) 27.5 g
exposure, (f) 33.5 g exposure [35].
If these cracks existed they would extend across many grains. In
fact all the cracks that were observed were only a single grain or
less in size. This conrms similar observations by other studies
of the erosive wear of coarse grained hardmetals [39,12].
The build up of plastic strain in individual WC grains often
reaches the point at which fracture occurs, weakening and frag-
menting the individual WC grain. In addition, the growth of
cracks between one WC grain and the next breaks down the
strong WC inter-grain network or skeleton in the material lead-
ing to a general weakening of the structure and increasing the
likelihood of breakaway of WC grains. This process of build up
of plastic straininthe WCgrains, followedbyfracture andbreak-
up is consistent with the observation by Klaasen and Kubarsepp
that XRD measurements conrmed that increased plastic strain
was present in worn samples of WC/Co hardmetals [40].
It should be noted that although the material removal mecha-
nisms demonstrated to occur in this paper take place by a locally
intermittent process, a macroscopic linear wear rate is observed
146 M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148
Fig. 12. Micro-scratch tests on a large grained hardmetal: (a) 130 mN load and 5 m radius indenter, (b) 130 mN load and 5 m indenter, (c) 290 mN load and 25 m
indenter, (d) 290 mN load and 25 m radius indenter for single pass, (e) same conditions as (d) but two passes of the indenter [33].
because these local events are averaged over many hundreds of
sites across the wear zone on the sample.
Re-embedding of fragments of WC into the surface of the
material was also observed in some types of wear. These were
high load scratch testing and high stress (ASTM B611) abra-
sion testing. It is interesting that in both cases the contact forces
are high, so that fracture of the WC grains is more likely. This
re-embedment is likely to reinforce the surface layers of the
material, increasing the wear resistance of the layer and reduc-
ing the wear rate. In many ways this process acts as a self
healing process in the surface layers. The formation of these
layers containing re-embedded WC material is consistent with
the observations of Hegeman et al. [41] who noted the formation
of tribochemical layers that contained small fragments of WC
in their study of grinding mechanisms for WC/Co hardmetals.
One aspect of the wear of these materials that is not so clear
is the dependence of the mechanisms of wear on the grain size
of the material. Many of the observations of wear mechanisms
M.G. Gee et al. / Wear 263 (2007) 137148 147
Fig. 13. Dependence of abrasive wear volume (ASTMB611 tests) on Palmqvist
toughness. Note that the different coloured points are differerent sets of WC/Co
hardmetals. The differences are not signicant with respect to this paper.
Fig. 14. Dependence of ASTM B611 abrasive wear volume on inverse square
root WC grain size.
were made in large grains sized hardmetals where the evolution
of damage is relatively easy to follow. Some observations were
made on the wear of ne grained materials, but the results were
not clear cut. No obvious direct evidence for plastic deformation
in the form of slip line traces was observed for these materials,
but this may be due more to the limited instrumental resolu-
tion of the instruments used rather than any intrinsic lack of
deformation. Further investigation is necessary, particularly as a
transition in wear mechanism has been reported to occur from a
process dominated by fracture in specic WC grains in the large
grain sized material to a process where gross plasticdeformation
is the key mechanism for ne grained materials [26,27,34,35].
Some sub-surface cracking was observed in the high stress
(ASTM B611) abrasion tests, but this was not observed in many
tests, so although this cracking may contribute to material loss
under these conditions, this is not thought to be a dominant
mechanism of wear.
6. Conclusions
This paper has described the mechanisms of wear that have
been observed in the abrasive and erosive wear of WC hardmet-
als. It was found that contributions to the wear of hardmetals
came from the removal of binder phase from the surface layers
of the hardmetals, and accumulation of plastic deformation in
the WC grains followed by fracture and fragmentation.
Re-embedment of fragments of WC grains into the binder
occurred in many cases, particularly for hardmetals with a high
binder phase content. It is thought that this re-embedment rein-
forces the surface layers of the hardmetals, and reduces the wear
rate of the surface. In other words the good wear resistance of
these materials may be in part due to the self healing surfaces
giving enhanced surface properties.
Some progress towards wear property mapping has been
achieved. Here it was found that the best differentiation between
materials was found when the results were plotted against the
inverse square root of the WC grain size.
The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the
DTI Materials Measurement Programmes for the work carried
out in this paper.
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