The origins of high hardening and low ductility in magnesium
Magnesium is a lightweight structural metal but it exhibits low ductility-connected with unusual, mechanistically unexplained, dislocation and plasticity phenomena-which makes it difficult to form and use in energy-saving lightweight structures. We employ long-time molecular dynamics simulations utilizing a density-functional-theory-validated interatomic potential, and reveal the fundamental origins of the previously unexplained phenomena. Here we show that the key < c+alpha > dislocation (where < c+alpha > indicates the magnitude and direction of slip) is metastable on easy-glide pyramidal II planes; we find that it undergoes a thermally activated, stress-dependent transition to one of three lower-energy, basal-dissociated immobile dislocation structures, which cannot contribute to plastic straining and that serve as strong obstacles to the motion of all other dislocations. This transition is intrinsic to magnesium, driven by reduction in dislocation energy and predicted to occur at very high frequency at room temperature, thus eliminating all major dislocation slip systems able to contribute to c-axis strain and leading to the high hardening and low ductility of magnesium. Enhanced ductility can thus be achieved by increasing the time and temperature at which the transition from the easy-glide metastable dislocation to the immobile basal-dissociated structures occurs. Our results provide the underlying insights needed to guide the design of ductile magnesium alloys.