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Metal Treatment

In: Science

Submitted By rwsgolf1
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Before describing existing art, competition, and cost structures in the space, it will be helpful to first provide a basic overview of the process characteristics, as well as how the B4C technology compares to other surface treatment processes within the metal finishing industry in general. At present, over ninety-five percent (95%) of all functional surface treatments are surface coatings such as hard chrome, HVOF, PVD, and CVD / nitride; all of which extract an element from a secondary source then apply it to the work piece. Overall, the greatest challenge in metal finishing production is in achieving the required balance between the desired surface properties and adhesion strength, as the bond between the applied coating and work piece is largely dependent upon proper preparation of the work piece prior to treatment.

To address this fundamental failure mode during preparation, the metal finishing house endeavors to achieve a level of cleanliness that is 100% free of any organic material and/or oxides. Even a pin-head size of missed surface contamination will often compromise the bond between the coating and substrate. Therefore, prior to plating each work piece is subjected to a variety of detergents and acids with rinse tanks in between. As a result, production plating lines with 25 to30 chemical stations are common prior to the final plating tank where the desired coating is applied. Even with today’s advanced process control systems, the potential for a bond failure remains a constant concern for both the metal finishing house and the ultimate end user; as bond failures often lead to catastrophic failure of the work piece in downstream operations or in actual use. The B4C process protocol, by comparison, calls for washing the work piece with a mild solvent, alcohol, or soap and water to removed gross surface contaminates such as machining oil or soil in general. This entire preparation process is achieved in a single operation compared to the typical 25 to 30 tanks containing hazardous chemicals.

Yet another concern is that coatings, by default, increase the dimensions of the work piece, thus forcing the manufacturers of close tolerance components to employ costly secondary machining operations to accommodate the added coating thickness leading to multiple levels of in-process inventories, special inspection processes, and complex assembly issues.


The B4C process, by comparison, is not a surface coating but rather a thermal chemical conversion of the dominate substrate element from an elemental state to a boride ceramic state. Only boron atoms are migrated into the substrate, converting iron (Fe) to iron boride (Fe2B) when treating steel parts, whereas cobalt becomes Co3B, nickel alloys become Nib4, etc; thereby eliminating the potential for a bond failure.

Once the work piece has been cleaned, a proprietary slurry mixture is brushed, dipped or sprayed onto the work piece. The slurry is usually allowed to dry over night (8 to 12 hours) but can be hot-air dried in an accelerated process if necessary. With the slurry dry, the work piece is placed in a standard furnace with either a nitrogen or argon and hydrogen atmosphere containing less than 2% total oxygen. The furnace time is dictated by the desired depth (thickness) of the protective Fe2B layer, generally from 20 minutes up to 6 hours for extreme abrasion resistance requirements. After heat treating, the slurry residue is washed from the work piece by soaking it in warm soapy water for 5 to 10 minutes, or placing the piece in an ultrasonic bath for a few seconds.


The closest competitive processes currently in use today are legacy iron nitrogen diffusion processes called Melonite and Melonite QPQ. Both are thermo-chemical processes intended for the case hardening of iron-based metals. These are typically categorized as molten salt bath ferritic nitrocarburizing processes. During these processes, nitrogen, carbon, and small amounts of oxygen are diffused into the surface of the steel, creating an epsilon iron nitride layer (e - FexN).

Addressing the Melonite QPQ first; the overall differences are many but the significant differences are hardness, depth of the protective layer and overall durability. The maximum depth of the Melonite layer is .0008 inches or about 20 microns deep, while the depth or thickness of the B4C process is typically .010 inches (250 microns) or in excess of 10X that of the Melonite process. The Melonite process yields a hardness range from 975-kph to 1100-kph on iron substrates. By comparison, the B4C process generates a hardness range of 1950-kph to 2200-kph.

Industry and military test data have revealed that Melonite case depths greater than .0008 become brittle, and thus are susceptible to fracture even under relatively light loads. The B4C process, in contrast, is currently being considered by the US Army to enhance armor protection on tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other theater-based vehicles to increase the hardness and cubic density of the protective vehicle plating without the concern of increasing brittleness, even with case depths between 300 and 500 microns deep. In another application, Melonite has recently been evaluated by the US Army as a possible replacement for the hexavalent hard chrome used to coat the inside of gun barrels of various calibers. However, in comparative testing, the B4C-treated barrels yielded double the lifecycle of those same barrels to date, with a 3X increase over Melonite treated barrels expected once the testing is concluded.

In summary, even though the Melonite process is also a thermal chemical diffusion process, the B4C process produces a considerably harder, more wear and abrasion resistant, and significantly deeper protective layer than Melonite; typically by a factor of 10X.

The second competitive process is the original boronizing process first used in Russia during the late 50’s and early 60’s here in the USA. Many of the enhanced attributes of the original process have been incorporated into the B4C process. However, there are significant differences between the processing and production throughput of the legacy and contemporary processes. The original boronizing process is applied utilizing a pack-sedimentation process which is extremely labor intensive and typically reserved for one-off specialty items such as the large drill bits used for earth boring. Massive valve bodies used in oil and gas pumping and very large gear assemblies used for draw bridges are two of the most common examples of its use today.

Presently, there are two heat treating companies that provide the legacy boronizing process in the US. The legacy processing time requires between 5 and16 hours of labor to pack the special powders in and around the work piece inside a retort of about the same size and shape, but approximately 10% larger in order to hold the powders close to the surface of the item to be treated. Each work piece requires a dedicated retort usually made of carbon to hold both the item and powders during heat treating. The furnace duration times average approximately 12 hours, compared to an average of 2 hours with the B4C process. The legacy process also produces both Fe2B and FeB, which increases the final part dimensions by approximately 30% of the total deposit thickness: a major disadvantage in manufacturing. After heat treating, removing the powder residue used in the legacy boronizing processes is a labor intensive activity requiring hazardous chemistry for soaking the treated components up to 12 hours, followed by abrasive sand blasting and final post polishing. Average clean-up timing of the legacy boronizing process after baking ranges between 3 and 6 labor hours, or a total of 18 to24 hours including soaking.

Current pricing from the two competitive manufacturers for treating standard M-4 machinegun barrels with the legacy boronizing process range from $675.00 to $710.00 per piece in quantities of 500 per month. Per-barrel processing cycle times were estimated to be approximately 18.5 labor hours. Bore dimensions using the legacy boronizing processes were reduced by approximately 24% during processing, requiring secondary processing after treatment to bring the barrels back into specification.

By comparison, two identical barrels were processed using the B4C process. Process cycle times were 18 minutes each to wash and dip in slurry, 3 hours at the reactive temperature, and less than 10 minutes after baking to remove the remaining residue.


As mentioned previously, one of the major attributes of the B4C process is its hardness. Borides are known to be harder in general than both carbides and nitrides; second only to cubic boron nitride and diamond. Due to the ability to withstand extreme pressure points and high temperatures, borides are even more durable than diamond in functional applications. The second hardest coating commonly used today is DLC (diamond like carbon) at 1850-kph. However due to its maximum thickness of 2 to 3 microns, any plastic deformation of the substrate while under load causes the DLC layer to shear-off (roller or camshaft lobes are typical examples). With a depth (thickness) of the B4C layer of 100 to 300 microns, substrate deformation has no effect on the protective layer.

Yet another unique attribute of Fe2B is its inability to cold weld to a mating surface; for example in stamping operations. Recently an extreme load test (Falex Pin & Vee test) was conducted using white alcohol as the only lubricant. The base material was SAE-9310 hardened to Rc-65. The baseline material seized at 22,310 lbs. However, the samples treated with B4C continued to function at 241,000-lbs (max load the machine can produce) with a wear-scare of less than 23 sq microns after a duration of 30 minutes.


The B4C process is ideally suited for small to medium size, high volume parts such as automotive fuel pump assemblies, camshaft lobes, as well as fuel injection pins and nozzles with holes less than 1-mm in diameter. Because the final surface contains about 40% boron after the B4C treatment, it is also highly lubricous requiring very little, if any moisture as a lubricant. These low friction properties provide not only significant part life extension, but significantly reduced parasitic losses in automotive applications (such as with piston rings, camshafts, lifters, cam-followers, oil pump assemblies, wrist pins, camshaft gears and chains, valve stems and guides, transmission and differential gears and cylinder walls) when applied as a replacement for Nicasil.


In conclusion, B4C, LLC has no direct competition within our industry segments and selected target markets. The B4C process is completely green (environmentally benign) with no waste stream. As a consequence, B4C, LLC offers a returnable waste program to its customers to take back leftover residue. The cost of process equipment is minimal as our process can be readily integrated into an existing manufacturing heat treating process without environmental issues and without major disruption of continuing operations. Finally, the total cost of the B4C process is a fraction of the cost of DLC, HVOF, and CVD /PVD type coatings, thereby delivering an excellent return-on-investment for our customers.

B4C, LLC. The Science of Thermal Chemical Diffusion CAGE CODE: 653Q2…...

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