Infoscience

Thesis

Analysis of nano-sized irradiation-induced defects in Fe-base materials by means of small angle neutron scattering and molecular dynamics simulations

Thermonuclear fusion of light atoms is considered since decades as an unlimited, safe and reliable source of energy that could eventually replace classical sources based on fossile fuel or nuclear fuel. Fusion reactor technology and materials studies are important parts of the fusion energy development program. For the time being, the most promising materials for structural applications in the future fusion power reactors are the Reduced Activation Ferritic/Martensitic (RAFM) steels for which the greatest technology maturity has been achieved, i.e., qualified fabrication routes, welding technology and a general industrial experience are almost available. The most important issues concerning the future use of RAFM steels in fusion power reactors are derived from their irradiation by 14 MeV neutrons that are the product, together with 3.5 MeV helium ions, of the envisaged fusion reactions between deuterium and tritium nuclei. Indeed, exposure of metallic materials to intense fluxes of 14 MeV neutrons will result in the formation of severe displacement damage (about 20-30 dpa per year) and high amounts of helium, which are at the origin of significant changes in the physical and mechanical of materials, such as hardening and embrittlement effects, for instance. This PhD Thesis work was aimed at investigating how far the Small Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS) technique could be used for detecting and characterizing nano-sized irradiation-induced defects in RAFM steels. Indeed, the resolution limit of Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) is about 1 nm in weak beam TEM imaging, and it is usually thought that a large number of irradiation-induced effects have a size below 1 nm in RAFM steels and that these very small defects actually contribute to the irradiation-induced hardening and embrittlement of RAFM steels occurring at irradiation temperatures below about 400°C. The aim of this work was achieved by combing SANS experiments on unirradiated and irradiated specimens of RAFM steels with Molecular Dynamics (MD) simulations of main expected nano-sized defects in irradiated pure Fe and Fe-He alloys, as model materials for RAFM steels, and simulations of their corresponding TEM images and SANS signals. In particular, the SANS signal of various types of defects was simulated for the first time. The methodology used in this work was the following: SANS experiments were performed by applying a strong saturating magnetic field to unirradiated and irradiated specimens of three types of RAFM steels, namely the European EUROFER 97, the Japanese F82H and the Swiss OPTIMAX A steels. The available irradiated specimens included specimens which had been irradiated with 590 MeV protons in the Proton IRradiation EXperiment (PIREX) facility at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) at temperatures in the range of 50-350°C to doses in the range of 0.3-2.0 dpa. SANS spectra as well as values of the so-called A ratio, which represents the ratio of the total scattered intensity to the nuclear scattered intensity, were obtained for the various irradiation doses and temperatures investigated. MD simulations of atomic displacement cascades in pure Fe and in Fe-He alloys were performed using Embedded Atom Method (EAM) many-body interatomic potentials. The main nano-sized defects that should be produced in RAFM steels under irradiation were created by means of MD in pure Fe. These included dislocation loops of various types, voids, helium bubbles with various He concentration and Cr precipitates. TEM images of cascade damage and all the defects created by MD were simulated in the dark field/weak beam imaging modes by using the Electron Microscopy Software (EMS) developed by P.A. Stadelmann (EPFL) and analyzed in terms of variations of contrast intensities versus depth inside the specimen. The SANS signal provided by cascade damage and all the defects created by MD was simulated by using a slightly modified version of EMS, accounting for neutrons instead of electrons. The SANS technique has been proven in this work to be a very powerful tool for detecting nano-sized irradiation-induced defects and a tool well complementary to TEM for characterizing such very small irradiation-induced defects. Indeed, TEM appears most adapted to investigate structural defects, such as dislocation loops and helium bubbles with high helium concentration, which yield significant lattice deformation of the surrounding matrix, while SANS is most adapted to investigate phase defects, such as voids, helium bubbles with low helium concentration and Cr precipitates. By combining the results of SANS experiments with those of MD simulations, TEM image simulations and SANS signal simulations, the nano-sized irradiation-induced defects were tentatively identified as small helium bubbles. While the radiation hardening measured for RAFM steels cannot be explained by accounting only for the defects observed in TEM, it could be successfully modeled by accounting also for a reasonable number density of the nano-sized defects evidenced using the SANS technique.

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