A detailed characterization of nanostructured thin zirconium oxide films formed during aqueous corrosion of a nuclear-grade zirconium alloy (Zircaloy-4) has been carried out by means of two novel, ultra-high-spatial-resolution grain mapping techniques, namely automated crystal orientation mapping in the transmission electron microscope (TEM) and transmission electron backscatter diffraction (t-EBSD). While the former provided excellent spatial resolution with the ability to identify tetragonal ZrO2 grains as small as ∼5 nm, the superior angular resolution and unambiguous indexing with t-EBSD enabled verification of the TEM observations. Both techniques revealed that in a stress-free condition (TEM foil prepared by focused ion beam milling), the oxide consists mainly of well-oriented columnar monoclinic grains with a high fraction of transformation twin boundaries, which indicates that the transformation from tetragonal to monoclinic ZrO2 is a continuous process, and that a significant fraction of the columnar grains transformed from stress-stabilized tetragonal grains with (0 0 1) planes parallel to the metal-oxide interface. The TEM analysis also revealed a small fraction of size-stabilized, equiaxed tetragonal grains throughout the oxide. Those grains were found to show significant misalignment from the expected (0 0 1) growth direction, which explains the limited growth of those grains. The observations are discussed in the context of providing new insights into corrosion mechanisms of zirconium alloys, which is of particular importance for improving service life of fuel assemblies used in water-cooled reactors.
- Zirconium oxide