In materials science, quenching is the rapid cooling of a workpiece to obtain certain material properties. It prevents low-temperature processes, such as phase transformations, from occurring by only providing a narrow window of time in which the reaction is both thermodynamically favorable and kinetically accessible. For instance, it can reduce crystallinity and thereby increase toughness of both alloys and plastics (produced through polymerization).
In metallurgy, it is most commonly used to harden steel by introducing martensite, in which case the steel must be rapidly cooled through its eutectoid point, the temperature at which austenite becomes unstable. In steel alloyed with metals such as nickel and manganese, the eutectoid temperature becomes much lower, but the kinetic barriers to phase transformation remain the same. This allows quenching to start at a lower temperature, making the process much easier. High speed steel also has added tungsten, which serves to raise kinetic barriers and give the illusion that the material has been cooled more rapidly than it really has. Even cooling such alloys slowly in air has most of the desired effects of quenching.
Extremely rapid cooling can prevent the formation of all crystal structure, resulting in amorphous metal or "metallic glass".
Read more about Quenching: Quench Hardening, Quenching Distance