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The Heat Treat Doctor

Daniel H. Herring | 630-834-3017 |

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Understanding Magnesium Heat Treatment

h world is becoming lighter, faster and more energy

e cient. For all these reasons, and more, the spotlight
i turning toward the use of magnesium and magnesium
aalloys, especially in the aerospace and automotive
industry. We need to better understand these alloys and how to
heat treat them. Lets learn more.
Magnesium is rarely used as an engineered material in its unalloyed form. Its hexagonal close-packed
(HCP) lattice structure promotes alloying
with many elements including aluminum,
zinc, lithium, cerium, silver, zirconium and
thorium. Magnesium alloys are available as
cast and wrought products.
Techniques for producing wrought alloys
include rolling (sheet, plate), extrusion and
forging. They are designed with properties
such as low-to-medium-to-high strength,
weldability, corrosion and creep resistance, and ultra lightweight.
Wrought magnesium alloys that can be strengthened by heat
treatment are grouped according to composition with examples in
Aluminum-manganese (LA141)
Aluminum-manganese-zinc (AZ31, AZ61, AZ80)
Manganese (M1)
Manganese-zinc (ZM21)
Thorium-zirconium (HK31)
Thorium-manganese (HM21)
Zinc-zirconium (ZK31, ZK61)
Zinc-zirconium-thorium (HZ11)
Various casting techniques (sand cast, chill cast) and temper
conditions (e.g. T4, T5, T6) produce castings of various compositions
having characteristics such as good room-temperature strength and
ductility, good creep resistance and proof stress, and they are easily
weldable. Magnesium-alloy castings that benet from heat treatment
are grouped based on the alloying elements they contain:
Aluminum-zinc-manganese (AZ63, AZ81, AZ91, AZ92)
Rare earth metal-zinc-zirconium (ZE41, ZE 63, EZ33)
Rare earth metal-silver-zirconium, with or without thorium
(OE22, EQ 21, QH21)
Rare earth metal-yttrium-zirconium (WE43, WE54)
Thorium-zirconium, with or without zinc (HK31, HZ32)
Zinc-zirconium (ZK51, ZK61)

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Types of Heat Treatment

The types of heat treatments applied to magnesium and its
alloys are:
Annealing of wrought magnesium alloys is done to negate the
effects of strain hardening or tempering.
Solution heat treatment yields proper mechanical properties
such as increased strength and ductility.
Stress relief, as applied to castings, helps avoid warping and distortion in subsequent heat treatments and reduces the risk of
stress-corrosion cracking (SCC) in welded components.
Stress relief of wrought alloys, though not common, is used to
counteract stress induced by cold and hot working, shaping,
forming, straightening and welding.
Specications such as ASTM B661-06 (Standard Practice for
the Heat Treatment of Magnesium Alloys) and AMS 2768 (Heat
Treatment of Magnesium Alloy Castings) are often referenced for
specic treatment details.
Solution Heat Treating
Solution heat treatment of magnesium alloys results in high tensile strength and maximum ductility. Magnesium alloys tend to
reach temperature quickly due in part to their high thermal conductivity and low specic heat. In normal practice, the soak time
begins when the furnace reaches set point.
The time at temperature is a function of the section thickness of
the material and may vary from several minutes to many hours. A
good rule of thumb is to double the time at solution heat-treatment
temperature for thick-sectioned castings. For example, AZ63A castings normally require 12 hours at 725F (385C) but require 24+

Fig. 1. Typical heat-treat processing oven (Photograph courtesy of

Wisconsin Oven Corporation)

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hours when section thickness exceeds 2

inches (50 mm). Similarly, the suggested
solution treating time for AZ92A castings
is about 6 hours at 760F (405C) followed
by 2 hours at around 660F (350C) and 10
hours again at 760F (405C) to prevent excessive grain growth. But for castings with
sections more than 2 inches (50 mm) thick,
it is recommended that the last soak be extended from 10 to 20 hours. Checking the
part microstructure is by far the best way to
determine whether or not additional solution treating time is required.
Normal oven requirements (Fig. 1)
for temperature uniformity are 10F
(5.5C), but certain alloys require tighter
tolerances. The time required to heat a
load to the treatment temperature also increases with section thickness and loading
arrangement. Thus, the total cycle time
must take into consideration these factors.
Certain alloys like magnesium-aluminum-zinc require precautions such as
loading into the oven, which is at a preheat temperature typically around 500F
(260C), and then slowly ramping to solution-treating temperature to avoid fusion
of eutectic compounds and formation of
voids. The time required to bring the load
from 500F (260C) to the solution-treating temperature is determined by the size
of the load and by the composition, size,
weight and section thickness of the parts.
Other special cases apply. Alloys containing large percentages of thorium, rareearth metals (yttrium, hafnium, etc.) and
zirconium, used in the T5 or T6 temper
tend to shrink rather than grow at solution heat-treatment temperatures. Still,
other castings of aluminum-manganese or
aluminum-manganese-zinc exhibit permanent growth if subjected to long exposure
to temperature.
Protective Atmospheres
Above 750F (400C), protective atmospheres are used in solution heat treatment
so as to prevent surface oxidation and as a
safety measure due to the unpredictable
combustive nature of magnesium, espe28 February 2009 -

cially if the processing temperature is

exceeded. Ovens and furnaces used for
solution heat treatment must therefore
have gas-tight construction.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are the most common gases
used. Inert gas such as argon or nitrogen
may be used if one can ensure that oxygen is not allowed to enter the furnace
atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide has a pungent
odor (rotten-egg smell) and can be corrosive to certain materials (e.g. nylon).
A typical concentration of 0.7% (0.5%
minimum) is used to prevent the material
from self-igniting up to a temperature of
1050F (565C), provided melting has not
occurred. Carbon dioxide in a concentration of 3% will prevent the pyrophoric
reaction to 950F (510C), and a carbon
dioxide concentration of 5% will provide
protection to about 1000F (540C).
In large sections, magnesiums high thermal conductivity makes it difcult to ignite and under normal heat-treat conditions prevents it from burning. Magnesium
will not burn until it reaches its melting
point of 1204F (651C), but when it does,
the result is extremely high temperatures
and, quite literally, blinding white light.
Magnesium in the form of ne chips or
dust, however, is easily ignited. Should a
re occur, it can be extinguished with special powders such as soapstone or graphite.
Water or any standard liquid or foam re
extinguishers cause magnesium to burn
more rapidly and may cause an explosion.
Unlike aluminum alloys, most magnesium
alloys (Fig. 2) are quenched in air following solution heat treatment. For dense
loads or heavy castings, fans are used to
accelerate the cooling process.
Aging (Age Hardening)
The response to age hardening by magnesium alloys is signicantly less than
with aluminum alloys. When aging, parts

Fig. 2. Magnesium
casting after solution treating

should be loaded into the furnace

at the treatment temperature, held for at
least one hour per inch of cross-sectional
thickness and then cooled in still air.
Stress Relief
(Wrought Alloys or Castings)
Magnesium castings do not normally contain a high level of residual stresses and do
not generally require stress relief. However,
precision machining of castings to close
dimensional limits and the low modulus of
elasticity of magnesium alloys means that
comparatively low stresses can produce appreciable deformation. Stress relief is also
used to prevent stress-corrosion cracking in,
for example, welded magnesium-aluminum
casting alloys. Residual stresses may arise
from contraction due to mold restraint during solidication, from no uniform cooling
after heat treatment or from quenching.
Machining operations can also produce residual stress and require intermediate stress
relieving prior to nal machining.
Annealing can be used for both heattreatable and non-heat-treatable alloys to
increase ductility with a slight reduction
in strength. A typical annealing cycle for
wrought magnesium alloys is to heat them
to 550-850F (290-455C) for at least one
hour. Since most forming operations are
done at elevated temperature, most wrought
material is already fully annealed. IH
The balance of this column can be found online at