Solutes have been added to strengthen elemental metals, generating usable materials for millennia; in the 1960s, solutes were found to also soften metals. Despite the empirical correlation between the "electron number" of the solute and the change in strength of the material to which it is added, the mechanism responsible for softening is poorly understood. Using state-of-the-art quantum-mechanical methods, we studied the direct interaction of transition-metal solutes with dislocations in molybdenum. The interaction increases dramatically with increasing electron number and strongly influences the mechanisms responsible for plasticity in these materials. Our quantitative model explains solution softening of metals by using changes in energy and stress scales of plasticity from solutes.
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