The precipitation of nanoparticles plays a key role in determining the properties of many structural materials, and the understanding of their formation and stabilization mechanisms has been a long standing interest in the material field. However, the critical issues involving the group precipitation of various nanoparticles and their cooperative hardening mechanism remain elusive in the newly discovered Fe-based alloys with nanostructures. Here we quantitatively elucidate the nucleation mechanism, evolution kinetics and hardening effects of the group-precipitated nanoparticles in the Fe-Cu-Ni-Al-based alloys by atom probe tomography together with both first-principles and thermodynamic calculations. Our results provide the compelling evidence for two interesting but complex group precipitation pathways of nanoparticles, i.e., the Cu-rich and NiAl-based precipitations. The co-existence of the two precipitation pathways plays a key role in age hardening kinetics and ultimately enhances the hardening response, as compared to the single particle type of strengthening, therefore providing an effective new approach for strengthening materials for structural applications.
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