At its simplest, steel is composed of two things: iron and carbide. The speed of the cooling process after heat treatment is what influences the end shape of the carbide in your steel, and that shape is what determines the properties of your material: its hardness, toughness, and more.
In this Metallurgy Minute, Derek Denlinger discusses how the cooling rate and methods impact the morphology of carbide in steel—whether it will form spheroidite, pearlite, bainite, or martensite.

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