Pearlite is a two-phased, lamellar (or layered) structure composed of alternating layers of alpha-ferrite (88 wt%) and cementite (12 wt%) that occurs in some steels andcast irons. In fact, the lamellar appearance is misleading since the individual lamellae within a colony are connected in three dimensions; a single colony is therefore an interpenetrating bicrystal of ferrite and cementite. In an iron-carbon alloy, during slow cooling pearlite forms by a eutectoid reaction as austenite cools below 727 ºC (1,341 ºF) (the eutectoid temperature). Pearlite is a common microstructure occurring in many grades of steels.
The eutectoid composition of austenite is approximately 0.76% carbon; steel with less carbon content will contain a corresponding proportion of relatively pure ferrite crystallites that do not participate in the eutectoid reaction and cannot transform into pearlite. Likewise steels with higher carbon contents will form cementite before reaching the eutectoid point. The proportion of ferrite and cementite forming above the eutectoid point can be calculated from the iron/iron—carbide equilibrium phase diagram using the lever rule.
Steels with pearlitic (eutectoid composition) or near-pearlitic microstructure (near-eutectoid composition) can be drawn into thin wires. Such wires, often bundled into ropes, are commercially used as piano wires, ropes for suspension bridges, and as steel cord for tire reinforcement. High degrees of wire drawing (logarithimic strain above 3) leads to pearlitic wires with yield strengths of several Giga Pascals. It makes pearlite one of the strongest structural bulk materials on earth. Some hypereutectoid pearlitic steel wires, when cold wire drawn to true (logarithmic) strains above 5, can even show a maximal tensile strength above 6 GPa. Although pearlite is used in many engineering applications, the origin of its extreme strength is not well understood. It has been recently shown that cold drawing not only strengthens pearlite by refining the lamellae structure, but also simultaneously causes partial chemical decomposition of cementite and even a structural transition from crystalline to amorphous cementite. The deformation-induced decomposition and microstructural change of cementite is closely related to several other phenomena such as a strong redistribution of carbon and other alloy elements like Si and Mn in both the cementite and the ferrite phase; a variation of the deformation accommodation at the phase interfaces due to a change in the carbon concentration gradient at the interfaces; and mechanical alloying.
Pearlite was first identified by Henry Clifton Sorby and initially named sorbite, however the similarity of microstructure to nacre and especially the optical effect caused by the scale of the structure made the alternative name more popular.
Bainite is a similar structure with lamellae much smaller than the wavelength of visible light and thus lacks this pearlescent appearance. It is prepared by more rapid cooling. Unlike pearlite, whose formation involves the diffusion of all atoms, bainite grows by a displacive transformation mechanism.