Is Tungsten Brittle or Ductile? Properties of Tungsten

Exploring the Properties of Tungsten: Is Tungsten Brittle or Ductile?

Tungsten is inherently brittle at room temperature due to its body-centered cubic crystalline structure. This structure contains high Peierls stresses that resist dislocation movement, making tungsten very strong but also quite brittle. The high strength comes from strong covalent bonds between tungsten atoms.

Applications that take advantage of tungsten's brittleness include filaments in incandescent light bulbs and electrodes in arc welding. The brittleness allows the tungsten to withstand high temperatures without deforming.

Include a brief explanation of the physical properties that contribute to tungsten's brittleness.

The body-centered cubic structure of tungsten makes it very brittle at room temperature. This is because the structure resists dislocation movement due to high Peierls stresses between atoms. Dislocations allow metals to deform plastically and absorb stresses without cracking. Since dislocation movement is difficult in tungsten, it cannot deform and instead fractures when stressed.

Discuss the crystalline structure and its impact on the material's strength. Mention any common applications that take advantage of tungsten's brittle nature.

Tungsten has a body-centered cubic crystalline structure which gives it very high strength due to strong covalent bonds between atoms. However, this structure also leads to brittleness because it resists dislocation motion. Applications like filaments and electrodes utilize tungsten's ability to withstand high temperatures without deforming due to its brittleness.

Tungsten's brittleness allows it to maintain its shape and strength even when red hot. If tungsten was more ductile, it would deform under its own weight when heated. Therefore, applications where tungsten must retain its shape at high temperatures benefit from its brittle nature.

Is Tungsten Ductile?

While tungsten is known for its hardness and brittleness, it can exhibit some ductile behavior under the right conditions. The key factors that influence tungsten's ductility include:


Pure tungsten is quite brittle. However, when small amounts of impurities like carbon or rhenium are added, these can disrupt the orderly crystalline structure of tungsten and allow it to deform more easily without cracking. Even tiny concentrations of impurities, less than 1%, can have a significant impact on improving ductility.


At high temperatures, tungsten becomes more ductile. This is because the vibrations of the atoms increase at higher temperatures, making it easier for dislocations to move through the crystal structure. Tungsten can be readily forged and worked above 1200°C.

Stress State

The way that external stresses are applied also affects ductility. Tungsten shows greater ductility under compressive stress compared to tensile stress. This is why it can be pressed into shapes without cracking, even though it is brittle when pulled.


Some applications take advantage of tungsten's conditional ductility. For example, tungsten wire filaments in light bulbs are drawn while hot. Tungsten carbide is also made by sintering powdered tungsten and carbon, allowing it to be formed into cutting tools and wear-resistant parts.

So in summary, while pure tungsten at room temperature is quite brittle, it can demonstrate substantial ductility when impure, at high temperatures, or under compressive loading. Careful control of these factors allows tungsten to be shaped for specialized applications requiring good ductility.

What was tungsten originally called?

Tungsten was originally known as wolfram. The name "wolfram" originated from the mineral wolframite, which is one of the main ores of tungsten. The word ""wolfram"" itself has an interesting history. It comes from the Swedish words ""wolf"" (meaning wolf) and ""ram"" (meaning foam), referring to the difficulties miners faced when extracting tungsten from the ore.

tungsten history

Is Pure Tungsten Brittle?

Pure tungsten is known to be quite brittle at room temperature. This inherent brittleness stems from tungsten's unique crystalline structure and the strong covalent bonds between its atoms.

In its pure form, tungsten crystallizes in a body-centered cubic structure. This cubic structure contains lines of weakness that allow cracks to easily propagate through the material when stress is applied, making pure tungsten prone to sudden brittle fracture.

The transition from ductile to brittle behavior occurs because of the strength of the covalent bonds between tungsten atoms. When pure tungsten is heated to higher temperatures, these bonds become excited and allow the material to deform more plastically before fracturing. However, at lower temperatures the bonds remain rigid, restricting dislocation motion and leading to brittleness.

Pure tungsten starts to exhibit brittle mechanical properties below a ductile-to-brittle transition temperature of approximately 250°C. Below this critical temperature, the fracture mode shifts from transgranular cleavage to intergranular fracture as impurities and flaws at grain boundaries become crack initiation sites.

While pure tungsten is quite brittle at ambient temperatures, alloying elements can be added to improve ductility and fracture toughness. Rhenium, for example, is commonly alloyed with tungsten to enhance high temperature strength and plasticity. However, in its pure form, tungsten remains an inherently brittle metal.

Is Tungsten More Brittle Than Steel?

Tungsten is inherently more brittle than steel due to differences in their atomic structure and chemical composition. Steel contains iron atoms arranged in a crystalline structure with some dislocations and defects. This allows steel to bend and deform under stress before fracturing. Tungsten has a very regular crystalline structure with strong interatomic bonds, making it prone to sudden brittle fracture when overloaded.

Steel alloys contain carbon and other alloying elements that disrupt the iron crystal structure. This results in more ductile behavior. Pure tungsten is a single element with a highly ordered crystal lattice, providing no opportunity for dislocations to absorb applied stresses. Impurities in tungsten like oxygen can embrittle it further.

An example where tungsten's brittleness exceeds steel is in high velocity impact applications. Tungsten penetrators used in some armor-piercing ammunition can shatter upon hitting steel armor plating at very high speeds. The same penetrator would dent or deform steel armor instead of fracturing suddenly.

Tungsten Carbide vs Steel Tooling

Tungsten carbide, a very hard ceramic material, is also more brittle than steel tools and dies. Tungsten carbide cutting tools for machining and metal forming processes will chip or crack under excessive loads or improper use. Steel tools, while softer, can better resist deformation and absorb more stress before failure.

The brittleness of tungsten carbide requires more precise engineering and skilled operation to avoid catastrophic tool failure. However, the hardness and wear resistance of tungsten carbide makes it last much longer in proper service. For long production runs, tungsten carbide tooling is usually more cost effective despite higher upfront costs.

Mitigating Tungsten's Brittleness

Alloying tungsten with other metals like rhenium, nickel, iron or copper can improve ductility and fracture toughness. Small amounts of alloying elements distort the crystalline lattice, allowing more dislocation motion and absorption of stresses.

Research is ongoing into tungsten alloys, tungsten-based composites, and nano-scale tungsten structures to enhance mechanical properties for high-temperature applications in aerospace, defense, and other industries.

Is There a Way to Make Tungsten Less Brittle?

Tungsten is known for being an extremely hard and brittle metal. However, there are some techniques that can be used to improve its ductility and make it less prone to shattering.

Alloying with Rhenium

One of the most common ways to increase the ductility of tungsten is to alloy it with the metal rhenium. Rhenium has a similar crystalline structure to tungsten but is significantly more ductile. Adding just a few percent of rhenium to tungsten can improve its bendability and impact resistance considerably. This tungsten-rhenium alloy is widely used in filaments and electrodes that require durability.

Grain Structure Manipulation

The brittleness of tungsten is closely related to its grain structure. Tungsten with very large grains tends to be more brittle. By carefully controlling the grain size and distribution through processes like swaging and annealing, the ductility of tungsten can be enhanced. Research is ongoing into how to optimize the grain structure for maximum toughness.

Oxide Dispersion Strengthening

Introducing nano-scale oxide particles into the tungsten matrix has been shown to significantly improve ductility and fracture toughness. The finely dispersed oxide particles act as barriers to crack propagation. They also disrupt the grain structure in ways that promote plastic deformation over brittle fracturing. This oxide dispersion strengthening technique is still being perfected.

Future Research

There are many exciting areas of research focused on overcoming the brittleness of tungsten. These include advanced alloy development, grain boundary engineering, Nano structuring, and computational modeling to better understand deformation mechanisms. With continued work, tungsten's extraordinary properties may one day be combined with sufficient ductility for more widespread structural applications.

At What Temperature Does Tungsten Become Brittle?

Tungsten exhibits a distinct transition from ductile to brittle behavior as temperature decreases. This is known as the ductile-to-brittle transition temperature (DBTT). For tungsten, the DBTT typically falls within the range of 400°C to 500°C (750°F to 930°F).

Below this temperature range, tungsten becomes increasingly brittle and prone to sudden fracture when subjected to stress. The brittleness arises from changes in the microstructure and crystal structure of tungsten at lower temperatures.

Specifically, at high temperatures tungsten has a body-centered cubic (BCC) crystal structure which can accommodate some plastic deformation. However, below the DBTT, the BCC structure transforms into a more rigid tetrahedral arrangement which cannot easily deform before fracturing.

Grain boundaries also become less mobile and unable to relieve stress as readily. Dislocations within the crystalline lattice get pinned in place, preventing slip and plastic flow. All these factors contribute to the transition to brittleness.

The temperature-dependent brittleness of tungsten has important implications for applications where the metal experiences thermal cycling or extreme temperatures. Aircraft and aerospace components, electrical contacts, rocket nozzles, and radiation shields must all be designed to account for tungsten's reduced ductility and fracture resistance at low temperatures.

Alloying or composite formulations can help extend tungsten's ductile performance to lower temperatures. However, there are limits to mitigating the intrinsic DBTT of this refractory metal. Understanding and accounting for the temperature-dependent properties of tungsten remains critical in high-performance engineering applications.

What Makes Tungsten So Brittle?

Tungsten is inherently brittle due to its unique crystalline structure and high transition temperature. At room temperature, tungsten forms a body-centered cubic lattice which has limited slip systems for dislocation movement. This restricts tungsten's ability to deform plastically under stress, making it prone to sudden fracture rather than ductile yielding.

Additionally, tungsten has a high ductile to brittle transition temperature, usually above room temperature. Below this critical temperature, the material loses ductility and becomes very brittle. This is because at lower temperatures, tungsten cannot activate dislocation movement or twinning - the mechanisms that allow metals to deform ductilely. The high transition temperature is a result of tungsten's high melting point and stable crystal structure.

Tungsten's Brittleness Enables Unique Applications

Tungsten's inherent brittleness is actually advantageous for certain applications. For example, tungsten carbide is used to make extremely hard and durable cutting tools that can withstand high machining forces without deforming. Tungsten's brittle nature prevents the material from blunting under extreme pressures.

Tungsten is also commonly used as the filament material in incandescent light bulbs. Its high melting point allows the filament to glow white-hot without sagging or deforming. A more ductile metal would fail prematurely under such conditions.

Enhancing Tungsten's Ductility

While tungsten's brittleness can be useful, researchers are also investigating ways to improve the ductility of tungsten for applications that require better formability. This includes adding alloying elements like rhenium or small amounts of carbon to stabilize tungsten's crystal structure. Grain refinement through advanced processing techniques can also introduce more grain boundaries that facilitate dislocation movement.

Ongoing research on tungsten aims to balance its intrinsic brittleness with enhanced ductility to expand its functionality across diverse industries. The unique properties of this refractory metal provide opportunities for innovation in materials science and engineering.

How much force does it take to break tungsten?

Tungsten, a metal known for its remarkable strength and durability, has long been a subject of fascination. With the highest tensile strength of any pure metal, it can withstand up to 500,000 psi at room temperature and even maintains this strength at temperatures over 1,500°C. But how much force does it really take to break tungsten? Let's delve into this intriguing topic.

Tungsten is not just strong; it's incredibly dense. This density allows it to resist melting under extreme heat, making it one of the hardest materials on the planet. In fact, on the Mohs scale of hardness, tungsten scores a whopping 9. To put that into perspective, diamond, the hardest known natural substance, scores a perfect 10.

But what does this mean in terms of breaking or shattering tungsten? Well, despite its impressive strength, tungsten is not invincible. It's important to remember that the harder a material is, the more brittle it becomes. This means that while tungsten can withstand extreme forces without deforming, it can shatter when enough force is applied.

The strength of tungsten is measured in units of force per unit area, such as mega-Newtons per square meter, which is a mega-Pascal (MPa). Tungsten has a tensile strength of approximately 980 MPa, and this increases to 1862 MPa when cold worked. The ultimate tensile strength is the maximum amount of stress the material can endure while being stretched before it breaks.

So, how much force would it take to break tungsten? While there isn't a specific number, we know that a tungsten ring can shatter or crack when it meets with a hard surface. This is because, despite its hardness, tungsten can be brittle.

Now, you might be wondering why anyone would want to break tungsten. Well, in the world of jewelry, particularly rings, tungsten's potential to shatter is a topic of interest. Tungsten rings are popular due to their hardness and durability, but they can break when subjected to a significant impact. This is why it's advised not to wear a tungsten ring when doing heavy manual work or any activity that might expose the ring to a hard hit.

While tungsten is incredibly strong and durable, it's not unbreakable. The force required to break it depends on various factors, including the form of the tungsten (e.g., a thin wire versus a thick rod) and the type and direction of the force applied. But one thing is certain: it takes a lot more force to break tungsten than most other materials. So, next time you marvel at a piece of tungsten jewelry or a tungsten component in a machine, remember the incredible strength and resilience of this remarkable metal.