When steel is exposed to oxygen at an elevated temperature, it is subject to decarburization. Oxygen combines with the carbon molecules and bakes or burns them out of the steel. This loss of carbon prevents the steel from reaching full hardness.
Temperature and time are factors affecting the rate of decarburization. The higher that the temperature is the faster the decarburization will occur. A tool steel austenizing at 2000 degrees F will decarburize much faster than a tool steel austenizing at 1600 degrees F. Steel grades that harden below 1600 degrees F, generally don’t require protection from oxygen. Steel grades that harden near 2000 degrees F will decarburize within a few minutes, if exposed to oxygen.
There are three primary methods used to protect steel from exposure to oxygen. The three methods include gaseous atmosphere, vacuum or neutral atmosphere and stainless foil wrap.
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