Compute the mass fractions of ferrite and cementite in pearlite

In the intricate world of materials science and metallurgy, understanding the microstructure of alloys is crucial for predicting and enhancing their properties. Pearlite, a common microstructure found in steel, offers a prime example of how the arrangement of different phases within a material can significantly impact its characteristics. This article delves into the composition of pearlite, focusing on how to compute the mass fractions of its constituent phases: ferrite (α-Fe) and cementite (Fe3C).

Introduction to Pearlite

Pearlite is a two-phased, lamellar (layered) structure composed of alternating layers of ferrite and cementite. It forms in steel during the slow cooling of austenite below the eutectoid temperature of approximately 727°C. The unique arrangement of ferrite and cementite gives pearlite its characteristic strength and toughness, making it an essential component in a wide range of steel grades.

The Lever Rule: A Tool for Determining Phase Mass Fractions

To compute the mass fractions of ferrite and cementite in pearlite, metallurgists employ the Lever Rule. This rule is a graphical method used in phase diagrams to determine the percentage of each phase in a two-phase alloy system at equilibrium. The mass fraction can be calculated using the phase diagram of the iron-carbon system, focusing on the eutectoid reaction where austenite transforms into pearlite.

The Eutectoid Reaction

The eutectoid reaction in the iron-carbon system is represented by the equation:


This reaction occurs at 0.76 wt% C (the eutectoid composition) and 727°C. Pearlite is the microstructure resulting from this reaction, consisting of 88.8 wt% ferrite and 11.2 wt% cementite.

Computing Mass Fractions in Pearlite

The mass fractions of ferrite and cementite in pearlite can be directly derived from the eutectoid composition:

  1. Ferrite (α-Fe): Since ferrite is essentially iron with a very small amount of carbon dissolved in it (up to 0.022 wt% C at 727°C), its composition is close to pure iron. In pearlite, ferrite accounts for the majority of the phase, approximately 88.8% by weight.
  2. Cementite (Fe3C): Cementite is an iron carbide containing 6.67 wt% C. In pearlite, it makes up the remaining 11.2% by weight.

These percentages are derived from the lever rule applied to the iron-carbon phase diagram at the eutectoid point. It is important to note that these fractions are applicable to pearlite formed at the eutectoid composition. The actual microstructure and phase fractions can vary in steels with different carbon contents or cooling rates.

Practical Implications

Understanding the mass fractions of ferrite and cementite in pearlite is crucial for materials scientists and engineers aiming to manipulate the mechanical properties of steel. By adjusting the cooling rate and composition, it is possible to control the formation of pearlite and, consequently, the final properties of the steel. This knowledge enables the design of steel with tailored characteristics for specific applications, from construction materials to precision instruments.


The computation of mass fractions of ferrite and cementite in pearlite provides valuable insights into the microstructural composition of steel. This understanding is essential for predicting the material’s properties and performance. By mastering the principles behind the formation of pearlite, materials scientists and engineers can continue to innovate and improve the vast array of steel products that play a crucial role in modern society.

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