Blacksmiths and metallurgists in the West have been puzzled for centuries as to how the unique patterns on the famous Damascus steel blades were formed. Different mechanisms for the formation of the patterns and many methods for making the swords have been suggested and attempted, but none has produced blades with patterns matching those of the Damascus swords in the museums. The debate over the mechanism of formation of the Damascus patterns is still ongoing today. Using modern metallurgical computational software (Thermo-Calc, Stockholm, Sweden), Professor Haiwen Luo of the Central Iron and Steel Research Institute in Beijing, together with his collaborator, have analyzed the relevant published data relevant to the Damascus blades, and present a new explanation that is different from other proposed mechanisms.
Before the development of tanks, guns, and cannons, humans fought with swords, and there was one type of sword in particular that everyone wanted, a Damascus sword. Western Europeans first encountered these swords in the hands of Muslim warriors in Damascus about a thousand years ago. Damascus swords were prized for their strength and sharpness. They were famous for being so sharp that they could cut a silk scarf in half as it fell to ground, something that European swords could not do. Both Mediterranean and European blacksmiths believed that the outstanding strength and sharpness of the swords resulted from their beauty, i.e., the Damascus pattern. This presents as a wavy pattern like a rose and ladder on the surface of Damascus blades, as shown in Fig. 1. It was recorded that blacksmiths in Persia made the best Damascus steel swords by hammering a small cake of Wootz steel, which was a high-quality steel ingot imported from ancient India. The best European blade smiths from the Middle Ages onwards were not able to fabricate similar blades, even though they carefully studied examples made in the East. Damascus blades became even more mysterious when the art of making them actually died out. Despite all the knowledge and technological advances of the 21st century, people are still debating the mechanism through which such beautiful patterns were formed on Damascus blades.
The compositions and microstructures of many existing Damascus steel blades have been examined previously. Their C contents are within the range of 1 wt.%, and often around 1.6 wt.%. It is also known that the Damascus pattern results from the band-like formation of coarse cementite particles. The high C content leads to a large amount of cementite particles being precipitated during hot hammering. After proper etching, the coarse cementite bands appear white within the dark matrix, such that they form a visible pattern on the surface. After the 1970s, the mechanism for the formation of the Damascus pattern was revisited and debated, particularly by Professors Verhoeven from Iowa State University and Sherby from Stanford University. Sherby and his co-workers[1-4] thought that a coarse cementite network was formed around the large austenite grains, when the Wootz steel cake was cooled slowly in crucibles for several days after melting. Later, the continuous cementite network was broken into spheroidal particles during extensive hammering at relatively low temperatures between cherry (850 °C) and blood red (650 °C), rather than the white heat customarily used by European blacksmiths. Furthermore, Wootz steel cake must be used in the manufacture of genuine Damascus blades. The low-temperature hammering was also a key technology, by which Wootz steels were easily hot deformed without cracking, and finer carbide particles precipitated to make the steel stronger and tougher. However, Verhoeven et al. though that the Damascus pattern was related to the microsegregation of solutes during solidification. They carried out experiments on two genuine Damascus blades during which the carbides were removed completely by dissolution treatment, followed by quenching. It was shown that the planar arrays of carbide particles could be made to return, together with the surface pattern, by thermal cycling, whereas the Sherby mechanism requires the cementite particles formed on the boundaries of the large austenite grains to be retained during deformation. Hence, they argued strongly that the surface patterns formed on genuine Damascus steel blades should result from a type of microsegregation-induced carbide banding that requires thermal cycling[5-10]. In particular, the dendritic segregation of V was considered the most likely reason for carbide banding.
However, compositional examinations of some existing Damascus steel blades revealed that many of them contain almost no V or any other carbide-forming elements. Moreover, it is apparent that the ancient craftsmen making Wootz steels had no concept of alloying with particular elements such as V. As Wootz steel cakes have been discovered in many parts of the ancient Indian region, it is unlikely that the iron ores in all those places happened to contain V or other certain types of carbide-forming elements. Therefore, the explanation proposed by Verhoeven et al. is also less than convincing.
Luo et al. adopted a new method to approach this puzzle. Using an advanced metallurgical computational software package (Thermo-Calc), all possible factors, such as the influence of S, P, and V elements on the Fe-C phase diagram, precipitation of V(CN), diffusion of V in austenite, and the dendritic segregation of S and P during solidification were quantified, because they have all been considered as possible prerequisites for forming Damascus patterns. The calculations indicated that V(CN) particles precipitate or dissolve at temperatures much lower than cementite in cases with a low content of V, as is commonly found in Damascus steels (see Fig. 2a). Instead, the sulfide and phosphide could precipitate at the dendritic zone because of the severe segregation during slow solidification. In particular, the remaining P-rich liquid at the end of solidification might transform to a eutectic product of phosphide and cementite (Fig. 2b), which cannot be distinguished from cementite under an optical microscope. The high concentration of P will not be homogenized by diffusion after a short dissolution treatment, such that cementite might re-precipitate in the P-segregated regions. Therefore, the dendritic segregation of P influences the spatial distribution of cementite in Damascus blades and thus, the patterns are formed.
Luo et al. also suggested that their method could be widely employed to tackle other puzzles similar to that of the Damascus patterns, because today's knowledge is so well developed that reliable theoretical computations are now possible. Although people were capable of making Damascus steel swords containing ultrahigh carbon contents (1 wt.%) a long time ago, it is surprising that almost all modern steels in use contain C contents below 1 wt.%. However, with future developments of knowledge and technology, it is expected that ultrahigh carbon steels. e.g., Wootz steels, will once again find important applications, because the best of the new is often the long-forgotten past.
Note from the authors: It would be much appreciated if anyone would like to donate a piece of genuine Damascus blade for our research.
See the article: LUO Haiwen, QIAN Wei, DONG Han, Theoretic Analysis on the Formation Mechanism of Pattern on the Ancient Damascus Blades, Chinese Science Bulletin, 2014（9）.
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