Atomic mechanism and prediction of hydrogen embrittlement in iron
Hydrogen embrittlement in metals has posed a serious obstacle to designing strong and reliable structural materials for many decades, and predictive physical mechanisms still do not exist. Here, a new H embrittlement mechanism operating at the atomic scale in alpha-iron is demonstrated. Direct molecular dynamics simulations reveal a ductile-to-brittle transition caused by the suppression of dislocation emission at the crack tip due to aggregation of H, which then permits brittle-cleavage failure followed by slow crack growth. The atomistic embrittlement mechanism is then connected to material states and loading conditions through a kinetic model for H delivery to the crack-tip region. Parameter-free predictions of embrittlement thresholds in Fe-based steels over a range of H concentrations, mechanical loading rates and H diffusion rates are found to be in excellent agreement with experiments. This work provides a mechanistic, predictive framework for interpreting experiments, designing structural components and guiding the design of embrittlement-resistant materials.