Heat Treatment of Nonferrous Metals – Part Five (Heat Treatment of Magnesium Alloys)

in Aircraft Materials Processes and Hardware

Heat Treatment of Magnesium Alloys

Magnesium alloy castings respond readily to heat treatment, and about 95 percent of the magnesium used in aircraft construction is in the cast form. The heat treatment of magnesium alloy castings is similar to the heat treatment of aluminum alloys in that there are two types of heat treatment: (1) solution heat treatment and (2) precipitation (aging) heat treatment. Magnesium, however, develops a negligible change in its properties when allowed to age naturally at room temperatures.

Solution Heat Treatment

Magnesium alloy castings are solution heat treated to improve tensile strength, ductility, and shock resistance. This heat-treatment condition is indicated by using the symbol -T4 following the alloy designation. Solution heat treatment plus artificial aging is designated -T6. Artificial aging is necessary to develop the full properties of the metal.

Solution heat-treatment temperatures for magnesium alloy castings range from 730 °F to 780 °F, the exact range depending upon the type of alloy. The temperature range for each type of alloy is listed in Specification MIL-H-6857. The upper limit of each range listed in the specification is the maximum temperature to which the alloy may be heated without danger of melting the metal.

The soaking time ranges from 10 to 18 hours, the exact time depending upon the type of alloy as well as the thickness of the part. Soaking periods longer than 18 hours may be necessary for castings over 2 inches in thickness. NEVER heat magnesium alloys in a salt bath as this may result in an explosion.

A serious potential fire hazard exists in the heat treatment of magnesium alloys. If through oversight or malfunctioning of equipment, the maximum temperatures are exceeded, the casting may ignite and burn freely. For this reason, the furnace used should be equipped with a safety cutoff that will turn off the power to the heating elements and blowers if the regular control equipment malfunctions or fails. Some magnesium alloys require a protective atmosphere of sulfur dioxide gas during solution heat treatment. This aids in preventing the start of a fire even if the temperature limits are slightly exceeded.

Air quenching is used after solution heat treatment of magnesium alloys since there appears to be no advantage in liquid cooling.

Precipitation Heat Treatment

After solution treatment, magnesium alloys may be given an aging treatment to increase hardness and yield strength. Generally, the aging treatments are used merely to relieve stress and stabilize the alloys in order to prevent dimensional changes later, especially during or after machining. Both yield strength and hardness are improved somewhat by this treatment at the expense of a slight amount of ductility. The corrosion resistance is also improved, making it closer to the “as cast” alloy.

Precipitation heat treatment temperatures are considerably lower than solution heat-treatment temperatures and range from 325 °F to 500 °F. Soaking time ranges from 4 to 18 hours.