Ultrahard nanotwinned cubic boron nitride

Nature. 2013 Jan 17;493(7432):385-8. doi: 10.1038/nature11728.


Cubic boron nitride (cBN) is a well known superhard material that has a wide range of industrial applications. Nanostructuring of cBN is an effective way to improve its hardness by virtue of the Hall-Petch effect--the tendency for hardness to increase with decreasing grain size. Polycrystalline cBN materials are often synthesized by using the martensitic transformation of a graphite-like BN precursor, in which high pressures and temperatures lead to puckering of the BN layers. Such approaches have led to synthetic polycrystalline cBN having grain sizes as small as ∼14 nm (refs 1, 2, 4, 5). Here we report the formation of cBN with a nanostructure dominated by fine twin domains of average thickness ∼3.8 nm. This nanotwinned cBN was synthesized from specially prepared BN precursor nanoparticles possessing onion-like nested structures with intrinsically puckered BN layers and numerous stacking faults. The resulting nanotwinned cBN bulk samples are optically transparent with a striking combination of physical properties: an extremely high Vickers hardness (exceeding 100 GPa, the optimal hardness of synthetic diamond), a high oxidization temperature (∼1,294 °C) and a large fracture toughness (>12 MPa m(1/2), well beyond the toughness of commercial cemented tungsten carbide, ∼10 MPa m(1/2)). We show that hardening of cBN is continuous with decreasing twin thickness down to the smallest sizes investigated, contrasting with the expected reverse Hall-Petch effect below a critical grain size or the twin thickness of ∼10-15 nm found in metals and alloys.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't