Microstructure is defined as the structure of a prepared surface or thin foil of material as revealed by a microscope above 25× magnification. The microstructure of a material (which can be broadly classified into metallic
Metallography is the study of the physical structure and components of metals, typically using microscopy.Ceramic and polymeric materials may also be prepared using metallographic techniques, hence the terms ceramography, plastography and, collectively, materialography.-Preparing metallographic...

, polymeric, ceramic
Ceramography is the art and science of preparation, examination and evaluation of ceramic microstructures. Ceramography can be thought of as the metallography of ceramics. The microstructure is the structure level of approximately 0.1 to 100 µm, between the minimum wavelength of visible light and...

 and composite
Composite material
Composite materials, often shortened to composites or called composition materials, are engineered or naturally occurring materials made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties which remain separate and distinct at the macroscopic or...

) can strongly influence physical properties such as strength, toughness, ductility, hardness, corrosion resistance, high/low temperature behavior, wear resistance, and so on, which in turn govern the application of these materials in industrial practice.


The concept of microstructure is perhaps more accessible to the casual observer through macrostructural features in commonplace objects. If one ever comes across a piece of galvanized steel, such as the casing of a lamp post or road divider, one observes that the surface is not uniformly colored, but is covered with a patchwork of interlocking polygons of different shades of grey or silver. Each polygon (the most frequently occurring would be hexagons) is a single crystal of zinc
Zinc , or spelter , is a metallic chemical element; it has the symbol Zn and atomic number 30. It is the first element in group 12 of the periodic table. Zinc is, in some respects, chemically similar to magnesium, because its ion is of similar size and its only common oxidation state is +2...

 adhering to the surface of the steel beneath. Zinc and lead are two common metals which form large crystals visible to the naked eye. The metallic atoms in each crystal are well-organized into one of seven crystal lattice systems possible for metals (cubic, tetrahedral, hexagonal, monoclinic, triclinic, rhombohedral, orthorhombic); these systems dictate that the atoms are all lined up like points in a 3-D matrix. However, the direction of alignment of the matrices differ from crystal to adjacent crystal, leading to variance in the reflectivity of each presented face of the interlocked crystals on the galvanized surface. Symmetrical crystals are generally unstressed, unworked. They grow in all directions equally and were not subjected to deforming stresses either during or after. For large crystals, the ratio of crystal bulk to inter-crystal boundary (more properly, intergranullar boundary) is high. This indicates high ductility but correspondingly, lower strength (see Hall-Petch Strengthening), but a true study would take into quantitative account the relative strengths of the crystal and that of inter-crystal bonding.


When a polished flat sample reveals traces of its microstructure, it is normal to capture the image using macrophotography. More sophisticated microstructure examination involves higher powered instruments: optical microscopy, electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction and so on, some involving preparation of the material sample (cutting, microtomy, polishing, etching
Etching is the process of using strong acid or mordant to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio in the metal...

, vapor-deposition etc.). The methods are known collectively as metallography
Metallography is the study of the physical structure and components of metals, typically using microscopy.Ceramic and polymeric materials may also be prepared using metallographic techniques, hence the terms ceramography, plastography and, collectively, materialography.-Preparing metallographic...

 as applied to metals and alloys, and can be used in modified form for any other material, such as ceramic
A ceramic is an inorganic, nonmetallic solid prepared by the action of heat and subsequent cooling. Ceramic materials may have a crystalline or partly crystalline structure, or may be amorphous...

s, glass
Glass is an amorphous solid material. Glasses are typically brittle and optically transparent.The most familiar type of glass, used for centuries in windows and drinking vessels, is soda-lime glass, composed of about 75% silica plus Na2O, CaO, and several minor additives...

es, composites, and polymer
A polymer is a large molecule composed of repeating structural units. These subunits are typically connected by covalent chemical bonds...


Two kinds of optical microscope are generally used to examine flat, polished and etched specimens: a reflection microscope and an inverted microscope
Inverted microscope
An inverted microscope is a microscope with its light source and condenser on the top, above the stage pointing down, while the objectives and turret are below the stage pointing up. It was invented in 1850 by J. Lawrence Smith, a faculty member of Tulane University...

. Recording the image is achieved using a digital camera working through the eyepiece.

X-Ray microtomographic

Nondestructive testing
Nondestructive testing
Nondestructive testing or Non-destructive testing is a wide group of analysis techniques used in science and industry to evaluate the properties of a material, component or system without causing damage....

 of microstructure for biological materials is a challenge and computer microtomography
Microtomography , like tomography, uses x-rays to create cross-sections of a 3D-object that later can be used to recreate a virtual model without destroying the original model....

 is the current solution. In fact, CMT can be used for the evaluation of microstructure of many other materials also. CMT can be very expensive though, and for research purposes, it is a necessity to generate a three-dimensional microstructure from two-dimensional cross-sectional images of the material. This is an area of active research and pursued by many scientists.

Electron microscopy

For high-resolution information on metallurgical microstructures, electron microscopic methods can be employed. This can allow for direct observation of atomic-scale features such as very fine precipitation reactions, dislocation
In materials science, a dislocation is a crystallographic defect, or irregularity, within a crystal structure. The presence of dislocations strongly influences many of the properties of materials...

s or grain-boundary interfaces. Such methods may be critical in determining parameters such as solid state diffusivities.

See also

  • Fractography
    Fractography is the study of fracture surfaces of materials. Fractographic methods are routinely used to determine the cause of failure in engineering structures, especially in product failure and the practice of forensic engineering or failure analysis...

  • Metallurgy
    Metallurgy is a domain of materials science that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements, their intermetallic compounds, and their mixtures, which are called alloys. It is also the technology of metals: the way in which science is applied to their practical use...

  • Micrography
    Micrography (Microscopy)
    Micrography is also the art of using microscopes to make photographs. 'Micrograph' is an image obtained by means of a microscope and contains extensive details that form the features of a microstructure. "Etching" is done to improve contrast between phases by selective attack of some phases using...

  • Micrograph
    A micrograph or photomicrograph is a photograph or digital image taken through a microscope or similar device to show a magnified image of an item.Micrographs are widely used in all fields of microscopy.-Photomicrograph:...

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