In materials science, quenching is the rapid cooling of a material to obtain certain properties. It prevents low-temperature processes, such as phase transformations, from occurring by only providing a narrow window of time in which the reaction is both thermodynamically favourable and kinetically accessible. For instance, it can reduce crystallinity and thereby increase toughness of both alloys and plastics (produced through polymerization).
In metallurgy, it is most commonly used to harden steel by introducing martensite, in which case the steel must be rapidly cooled through its eutectoid point, the temperature at which austenite becomes unstable. In steel alloyed with metals such as nickel and manganese, the eutectoid temperature becomes much lower, but the kinetic barriers to phase transformation remain the same. This allows quenching to start at a lower temperature, making the process much easier. High speed steel also has added tungsten, which serves to raise kinetic barriers and give the illusion that the material has been cooled more rapidly than it really has. Even cooling such alloys slowly in air has most of the desired effects of quenching.
Extremely rapid cooling can prevent the formation of all crystal structure, resulting in amorphous metal or "metallic glass".
Quench hardening is a mechanical process in which steel and cast iron alloys are strengthened and hardened. These metals consist of ferrous metals and alloys. This is done by heating the material to a certain temperature, differing upon material, and then rapidly cooling the material. This produces a harder material by either surface hardening or through-hardening varying on the rate at which the material is cooled. The material is then often tempered to reduce the brittleness that may increase from the quench hardening process. Items that may be quenched include gears, shafts, and wear blocks.
Quenching metals is a series of steps; first step is soaking the metal. “Soaking” can be done by air (air furnace), or a bath. The soaking time in air furnaces should be 1 to 2 minutes for each millimetre of cross-section. For a bath the time can range a little higher. 0 to 6 minutes is the recommended time allotment in salt or lead baths. Uneven heating or overheating should be avoided at all cost. Most materials are heated from anywhere to 815 to 900 °C (1,500 to 1,650 °F).
The next step is the cooling of the part. Water is one of the most efficient quenching media where maximum hardness is acquired, but there is a small chance that it may cause distortion and tiny cracking. When hardness can be sacrificed, whale, cottonseed and mineral oils are used. These often tend to oxidise and form a sludge, which consequently lowers the efficiency. The quenching velocity (cooling rate) of oil is much less than water. Intermediate rates between water and oil can be obtained with water containing 10-30% Ucon, a substance with an inverse solubility which therefore deposits on the object to slow the rate of cooling.