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(EPSRC Advanced Metallic Systems CDT) Retained Austenite Decomposition, and its Effect on Microstructure and Properties in Low-Alloy Steels

   Department of Materials

   Applications accepted all year round  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

This project sits within the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Advanced Metallic Systems - a distinct research centre formed by a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester and the I-Form Advanced Manufacturing Centre, Dublin. Our doctoral students undertake a different doctoral programme, which includes a compulsory intensive technical and professional skills training programme throughout the 4-year project. For more information on our training programme content, aimed at converting graduates from a non-materials topic into metallurgy, please review our website (linked below).

This project is based at the Department of Materials at the University of Manchester, and is sponsored by Rolls Royce. We are seeking applicants with a 2.1 or 1st class degree in a STEM discipline.

It is critically important that the low-alloy steels used in energy applications have excellent strengths and toughnesses. These properties are determined by their microstructures, which are typically controlled by a processing route referred to as ‘austenitise, quench and temper’. The austenitise step is a high-temperature hold, which homogenises the microstructure across the material as a single phase – austenite. The steel is then cooled in the quench step, to form strong microconstituents such as bainite and martensite. A tempering step is then required to increase toughness, by relieving internal stresses and precipitating carbides in the martensite/bainite. 

Recent work has indicated that the presence of large carbides in low-alloy steel microstructures, which are detrimental for toughness, may result of the decomposition of islands of carbon-enriched retained austenite during tempering (retained austenite = austenite retained after quenching). We have already measured that significant levels of retained austenite (>10%) are likely to be present in large forgings following the quenching step, but the effect of tempering on these islands remaining less well understood. For instance, it is not clear at what stage during the tempering heat treatment these islands decompose, and whether they form different microstructures when different tempering temperatures are used.  

This project aims to characterise the process of retained austenite decomposition in low-alloy steels (SA540, SA508 Grade 3 and SA508 Grade 4N) in detail, and understand the conditions under which coarse carbides form. It will use techniques such as scanning and transmission electron microscopy, optical microscopy, dilatometry and synchrotron X-ray diffraction to characterise the austenite decomposition and the resulting microstructures. It will use microhardness testing and Charpy impact testing to assess the change in mechanical properties brought about by different post-temper microstructures. If time permits, a comparison will be made between the retained austenite behaviours in material that is chemical heterogeneous (i.e., standard wrought material) and material that has been homogenised to ensure a consistent chemistry throughout. 

 The outputs will be:

• Results showing when retained austenite islands decompose during typical tempering heat treatments.

• An investigation of the carbon content of retained austenite islands, and how this influences the microstructure formed when they decompose (e.g., into coarse carbides).

• An assessment of the effects of post-temper microstructure on impact energy. 

• A recommendation as to how heat treatments may be improved to reduce the formation of coarse carbides from retained austenite islands (if they are shown to be detrimental). 

• (If time permits) an assessment of how the formation and decomposition of retained austenite is influenced by the steel’s chemical homogeneity. 

The Centre for Doctoral Training in Advanced Metallic Systems is a partnership between industry and the Universities of Sheffield, Manchester and I-Form Advanced Manufacturing Centre, Dublin. CDT students undertake a 4-year doctorate with an in-depth compulsory technical and professional skills training programme. Please review our training programme, application process and full entry requirements at Please note, application is only via the University of Manchester (see website), and general enquiries can be made to the CDT ():

For more information on the research scope of the project please contact Ed Pickering at  .

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. We know that diversity strengthens our research community, leading to enhanced research creativity, productivity and quality, and societal and economic impact. We actively encourage applicants from diverse career paths and backgrounds and from all sections of the community, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status.

All appointments are made on merit.

Funding Notes

This is a 4 year PhD studentship covering fees and stipend (£17,668 in 2022-23) plus £5000 per year top-up. Funding will cover UK tuition fee and stipend only. The University of Manchester aims to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK. We are able to offer a limited number of scholarships that will enable full studentships to be awarded to international applicants. These full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.
Open ended until a suitable candidate is recruited

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