Grain refinement of aluminum provides a number of technical and economic advantages, including reduced ingot cracking, better ingot homogeneity, better mechanical deformation characteristics and improved mechanical properties. Grain refining elements, titanium and boron, were originally introduced into molten metal as refractory titanium alloy and as corrosive complex potassium metal fluoride salts. Use of these materials resulted in inconsistent performance and detrimental side effects, such as corrosion of furnace refractories, risk of inclusions and unpredictable grain refining response. These side effects and uncertainties were eliminated when master alloy companies together with aluminum producing companies developed a master alloy, which included aluminum, titanium and boron in precise quantities.
One of the most important goals of aluminum alloy production by casting is the refinement of grain size, because coarse grain size immediately reflects in lower property levels. In the case of fixed melting and casting conditions, this goal is usually achieved by different modification methods. These methods are conventionally based on the introduction of a small amount of special master alloys into a slightly overheated melt.
During crystallization, the nature and appearance of the master alloys play the main role in the grain size refinement:element solubility in the aluminum solid solution, binary, or multicomponent compounds according to the stable and metastable phase stability diagrams,
1.surface properties (surface tension, adhesion between phases, adsorption, etc.),
3.their particle size distribution,
4.their distribution uniformity,
5.processing parameters (heating/cooling rates, temperature, and time).
The first issue remains the main one for the development and selection of master alloys for particular grain refinement or modifying effects. It is based on the stable phase diagrams, assessed theoretically and experimentally, as well as on the chemical thermodynamics of the alloy systems.
The basic idea of "master alloys" has its grounds in the fact that many alloying elements are very active (Sr, Ti, Mg) or are just unsuitable (Na, B) to be entered in a pure form into aluminum alloys. Also, the production of purified metals like strontium or sodium with the purpose of dissolving only a small amount of addition (0.01-0.2%) is obviously not a cost-effective method. Many active metals can be manufactured much more easily in their alloy form (Al-Ti, Al-Sr, Al-Mg) due to lower activity of the leading elements. The dissolution of the master alloy in the melt also proceeds under a different mechanism than that of pure metals.
The master alloys used most often for aluminum contain titanium and other transition metals. These master alloys have been extensively studied for many years and are available commercially from different manufacturers. It is necessary to note that the chemical composition of the master alloys is only one, but not the most important, parameter to characterize their efficiency as grain refiners.
Often, master alloys are compared on the basis of the intermetallide particle that already exist in the master alloy and act as seeding nuclei during crystallization of the melt, influencing, in this way, the grain growth. For example, for Al-Ti-B master alloys, the best modification effect was obtained with spheroid particles of TiAl3 of 300 μm and TiB2 < 3 μm.
In the case of Al-Si alloys, so-called primary silicon crystals as well as silicon-rich phases remain in the liquid even at high temperatures (800-1200°C). In this case, the morphology and the size distribution of silicon crystals will determine the final grain size of the alloy, and thus, modifiers should affect first the silicon rather than aluminum crystals.
Many master alloys (like Al-Sr) are used mainly for the purpose of modifying, and not primarily grain refinement. On the other hand, some additions, like sodium, do not eventually affect the crystallization process by forming some intermetallides -rather, they change surface tension, adsorption, and other similar properties locally, and in this way prevent or assist the crystallization of one or another phase type, its polytype, or compound.
There are also master alloys with combined effect, acting as both grain refiners and modifiers. For example, an Al-10% Sr-2% B alloy is used for this purpose.