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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, June 2017


The Secrets of Damascus Steel Revealed:
A Chemical Perspective

by: Brett I. Cohen, Ph.D.
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



Abstract

Damascus steel swords were used in the Near East and composed of a type of steel called wootz steel. This type of steel was first pioneered in India as well as Sri Lanka in the sixth century B.C. and then exported globally. Swords made from this steel were tough, resistant to shattering and capable of being honed to a very sharp edge. The original method of manufacturing Damascus steel swords is not known. Many modern attempts to duplicate these swords have not been completely successful. After an extensive chemical literature search, this article will attempt to explain why Damascus Steel swords are difficult to manufacture today. Chemically, the key to the wootz steel used to produce Damascus Steel swords are the trace impurities of Tungsten and/or Vanadium. These two trace impurities could form carbides crystalline structures such as; Tungsten carbide and Vanadium carbide. Tungsten carbide is extremely hard and Vanadium carbide is possibly the hardest metal-carbide known on Earth. The recent discovery of carbon nanotubes in the Damascus steel's blade composition suggests that the precipitation of carbon nanotubes probably resulted from a specific process that may be difficult to replicate today should the production technique or raw materials (and their trace impurities) used be significantly altered.


Introduction

Damascus steel swords were used in the Near East and composed of a type of steel called wootz steel (Figiel, 1991, Pacey, 1991). Ingots of wootz steel are characterized as a crucible steel which are formed by sheets of micro carbides (carbides are compounds of carbon with a less electronegative element from trace impurities) within tempered martensite matrices forming a very hard steel crystalline structure. This type of steel was first pioneered in India as well as Sri Lanka in the sixth century B.C. and then exported globally (Pacey, 1991). Ancient Greek, Chinese and Roman literary references describe this type of Indian steel.

Swords made from this steel were tough, resistant to shattering (not brittle) and capable of being honed to a very sharp edge. The reputation and history of Damascus steel swords has given rise to many legends, for example the ability to cut through a rifle barrel or to cut a hair falling across the blade. These swords were also manufactured with distinct patterns (which were banded or mottled) similar to flowing water (Figiel, 1991). The steel swords made from wootz steel were named after the city of Damascus in Syria most probably because that is where they were manufactured and/or sold (Figiel, 1991, Pacey, 1991). The city of Damascus had a thriving weapons industry from the 3rd century A.D. to the 17th century A.D.

The original method of manufacturing Damascus steel swords is not known. Many modern attempts to duplicate these swords have not been completely successful. This is most probably due to raw material (including trace elements) differences along with the differences in the techniques used in manufacturing. Production of the patterned (which were banded or mottled) Damascus steel swords gradually declined and ceased by around Ca. 1750. This resulted in the process being lost to metalsmiths. Reasons for the decline in the manufacturing of Damascus Steel swords included; 1) breakdown of trade routes to supply the raw materials needed (which contained key trace elements for production), 2) the possible loss of knowledge of crafting techniques due to secrecy and lack of communication, and/or 3) the suppression of industry in India by the British (Figiel, 1991, Pacey, 1991).

After an extensive chemical literature search, this article will attempt to explain why Damascus Steel swords are difficult to manufacture today. Chemically, the key to the wootz steel for producing Damascus Steel swords is the trace impurities of Tungsten (with the chemical symbol W) or Vanadium (with the chemical symbol V). Tungsten is a hard, rare metal under standard conditions and is found naturally on Earth. Vanadium however, is a hard (characterized as a silvery grey) ductile, and malleable transition metal and is rarely found in nature. These impurites (Tungsten and Vanadium) are absent in the wootz steel found today. This could be due to acquiring the raw materials in different production regions or locations and/or smelting of the raw ores lack these key trace elements.

These two trace impurities could form carbides such as; Tungsten carbide (with a chemical formula WC) and Vanadium carbide (with a chemical formula VC). Tungsten carbide is a chemical compound that contains equal parts of tungsten and carbon atoms. In its most basic form, tungsten carbide is a fine gray powder. Tungsten carbide is approximately two times stiffer than steel and is double the density of steel. Tungsten carbide is also extremely hard. Tungsten carbide ranks about 9 on Mohs scale (mineral hardness scale-ranging from 1 (soft, Talc) to 10 (hardest, diamond)) with a Vickers number (unit of hardness) of around 2600 (Groover, 2010).

Tungsten carbide has a Young's modulus (also known as the elastic modulus, is a measure of the stiffness of a solid material) of approximately 450–700 GPa (where (Young's modulus) diamond is approximately 1050-1210 GPa). Tungsten carbide has a bulk modulus (defined as the ratio of the change in pressure to the fractional volume compression) of 630–655 GPa, and a shear modulus (the strain in response of a system to an applied stress) of 274 GPa (Groover, 2010). Vanadium carbide is the inorganic compound that contains equal parts of vanadium and carbon atoms. It is an extremely hard refractory ceramic material (with a hardness of 9-9.5 Mohs, similar to that of Tungsten carbide and almost as hard as diamond) and it is possibly the hardest metal-carbide known (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanadium_carbide).

In addition, techniques for controlled thermal cycling after the initial forging of the wootz steel to produce Damascius steel swords at specific temperatures have been lost in time. There are examples in literature to illustrate that different chemical compositions (such as Stainless Steel and Titanium) react differently after thermal cycling. Cohen, et al. (1992 and 1992a) for example, illustrated that Stainless steel dowels, reamers, and wrenches all showed a significant (ANOVA) (p less-than sign 0.05) increase in strength as a result of single and double cold treatment (at -96 degrees Celsius). Titanium dowels however, showed no strength increase following a single cold treatment, while they were weakened by a double cold treatment. Here, thermal cycling at -96 degrees Celsius affected the mechanical properties of different compositions (Stainless steel and Titanium) and in the case of Titanium compositions the dowels were weakened and became more brittle after a second thermal cycling (Cohen, et al. 1992, 1992a). In fact it was observed by Cohen, et al. (1992, 1992a) that the Stainless steel dowels became magnetized (resulting in the dowels being attracted to each other as well as a magnet) after single and/or double treatment and it was suggested that the Stainless steel crystalline structure of these dowels where converted to martensite (a very hard form of steel crystalline structure) matrices.

It should also be noted, that two recent discoveries of carbon nanotubes (and carbon nanowires) in the Damascus steel's blade composition suggests that the precipitation of carbon nanotubes probably resulted from a specific process that may be difficult to replicate today should the production techniques or raw materials (and their trace impurities) used be significantly altered (Milgrom, 2006 , Reibold, et al. 2006).


About the Author:

Dr Brett I. Cohen holds a PhD in inorganic and bioinorganic chemistry from the State University of New York at Albany. He received his PhD in November 1987 for his thesis entitled “Chemical Model Systems for Dioxygen-Activating Copper Proteins” and was a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University in 1988–1989. His research at Rutgers was in the area of peptide synthesis utilising transition metal chemistry. After his postdoctoral fellowship, from 1989 to 2003 Dr Cohen was one of the owners of Essential Dental Systems (manufacturer of dental composites and dental materials) where he was Chief Executive Officer and Vice President of Dental Research.

Dr Cohen has been awarded 16 US patents and has had over 100 papers published in peer-reviewed journals (such as Journal of the American Chemical Society, Inorganic Chemistry, Journal of Dental Research, Journal of Prosthetic Dentistry, Journal of Endodontics and Autism, etc.). These papers cover a variety of areas such as inorganic and bioinorganic chemistry, biomedicine, autism, physical chemistry, dentistry and more.

In the Alternative Arena Dr Cohen has published articles for Nexus Magazine, Phenomena Magazine, The Skeptic (Australia), Alternate Perceptions Magazine (AP Magazine), Heartfulness Magazine, and Argunners Magazine, etc. These articles cover a variety of topics such as UFO's, Ancient Mysteries {for example; Queen's Chambers chemistry in The Great Pyramid at Giza, Roman Flexible glass (Vitrum Flexile) and "Greek Fire", etc.}, Alternative History (for example, "Aero" Airship Flight in the mid 1850's, Prussian Blue staining the walls of German World War II concentration camps, and Early use of Chemical Warfare during the Persian-Roman War, etc.), Mythology {Cryptozoology} (chemical mechanism of fire-breathing dragons), Spirituality (Non-dualism), Alternative Health (Autism and links to Epigenetics, and Non-dualism and Autism, etc.) and more...

Dr Cohen's article entitled, "Non-dualism (or Non-Duality) and Autism" was published in Alternate Perceptions Magazine (AP Magazine), (issue 230), May 2017.

Dr Cohen can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


References

Cohen, B.I. et al. The effects of cold treatment on the physical properties of stainless steel and titanium alloy endodontic posts. J Prosthet Dent. 1992;68(5): 625-8.

Cohen, B.I. et al. The effects of cold treatment on the physical properties of stainless steel and titanium alloy endodontic posts and instruments. J Prosthet Dent. 1992a;68(5): 773-9.

Figiel, L.S. (1991). On Damascus Steel. Atlantis Arts Press, Pittsburgh, PA. ISBN 978-0-9628711-0-8.

Groover, M. P. (2010). Fundamentals of Modern Manufacturing: Materials, Processes, and Systems. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ. ISBN 978-0-470-46700-8.

Milgrom, L. ( 2006). Carbon nanotubes: Saladin's secret weapon. Royal Society of Chemistry, London, U.K.

Pacey, A. (1991). Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-year History. MIT Press, Cambridge MA. ISBN 978-0-262-66072-3.

Reibold, M.; Paufler, P.; Levin, A. A.; Kochmann, W.; Pätzke, N.; Meyer, D. C. (2006). Materials: Carbon nanotubes in an ancient Damascus sabre. Nature. 444 (7117): 286.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanadium_carbide

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