Densification Mechanisms for Spark Plasma Sintering in Alumina and Alumina Based Systems
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The densification mechanisms of polycrystalline α-alumina by spark plasma sintering are highly contradictory, with different research groups suggesting diffusion to dislocation controlled mechanisms to be rate controlling. The specific objective of this work was to investigate densification mechanisms of α-alumina during the intermediate and final stages of sintering by SPS, analyze the microstructural development and establish sintering trajectories. In addition, zirconia and yttria were added in different weight percentages to study the effect of solute concentration on the densification kinetics of spark plasma sintered alumina. The present work adopts a different approach from the classical method adopted previously to analyze the sintering kinetics and densification mechanisms of alumina in SPS, although existing models for hot pressing were adopted for the basic analysis. The densification behavior was investigated in the temperature range 1223-1573 K under applied stresses of 25, 50 and 100 MPa and grain sizes between 100 and 250 nm. The SEM micrographs reveal equiaxed grains with no abnormal grain growth in the dense samples. The ‘master sintering curve’ shows grain size to be primarily dependent on density, irrespective of the applied stresses or temperature. The stress exponent of 1 along with an inverse grain size exponent of 3 and activation energy of 320-550 kJ mol-1 suggests Al3+ grain boundary diffusion as the rate controlling densification mechanism in alumina. The densification rates are marginally slower in compositions with 0.1% Y2O3 and ZrO2 content possibly due to the smaller grain sizes used in this study which leads to faster rates compared to earlier reports. However, higher Y2O3 and ZrO2 content led to decrease in densification rate by more than an order of magnitude possibly due to presence of a second phase which increases the effective path length for diffusion, thereby reducing the densification rates. Presence of Y2O3 and ZrO2 in the compositions with 0.1% Y2O3 and ZrO2 were confirmed by TEM studies. The Y3Al5O12 (YAG) phase developed between 1223 and 1273 K and suppressed densification and grain growth in alumina. In spite of higher temperatures required for alumina-YAG and alumina-zirconia composites to attain density ~99%, the alumina grain size in the composites was smaller than that in pure alumina due to the Zener drag effect. The stress exponents obtained for Y2O3 and ZrO2 composites at both the concentrations yield a value of n~ 2, which indicates a change in densification mechanism from pure alumina. The higher stress dependence of these composites could be due to presence of solute and second phase formation, both of which retard densification rates. The inverse grain size exponents obtained are between 1 and 2; both stress exponent and grain size exponent values suggest an interface reaction controlled diffusion mechanism occurring in these composites, independent of the Y2O3 and ZrO2 content. Higher activation energies are obtained with the Y2O3 and ZrO2 composites of higher content, respectively, due to presence of second phase particles at grain boundaries. The presence of solutes at grain boundaries hinders grain boundary diffusion of alumina, leading to interface reaction controlled process; this is confirmed by superimposing standard aluminum grain boundary and lattice diffusion data on to stress-densification rate data obtained in this work. A comparison of stress exponents using current experimental data adopting the present and the classical approaches show a wide difference in their values indicating a change in the rate controlling diffusion path, necessitating a review of the assumptions made on the basic equations used in previous SPS studies.
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