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Brittle Fracture

Modes Of Failure

WTIA Guidance Note 3

May 2001

1. Scope This Note summarises essential features of brittle fracture a mode of failure by fracture with little or no
yielding. It occurs with brittle materials e.g. high strength steels, cast iron, glass, ceramics etc.

2. Features Sudden, extensive cleavage fracture with negligible distortion; under tensile stress (residual & applied);
usually at defects; in ferritic steels usually in thicknesses over 12 mm and temperatures below 20C or the transition
temperature. Often catastrophic.
3. Main Examples (at welds) underlined occurred in winter

WWII Liberty Ships

at wharf
1941-48, USA

Pressure Vessel 150 mm

thick at hydrotest
December 1965, UK

Kings Bridge heavy

July 1962, Australia


Storage Tank at hydro-test Feb 1952, UK.

Agric. Machine residual stress Aug 1972, NSW.

Eildon Penstock at hydrotest 1958, Vic.

Boiler tubeplate Aug 1981, NSW.

Sizewell Vessel at hydrotest 1963, UK

Longford Heat Exchanger Sept 1998, Vic

4. Fracture Features
Macro: 90 to surface, bright crystalline appearance, small shear lips on edge;
may have some shear fracture (grey velvety); chevron pattern usual on long
fracture points to crack initiation site.
Micro: Transgranular in ferritic microstructure.
Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM): Transgranular with river marks.

Notch 2mm


10mm +
Fractured Charpy V Specimen

5. Contributing Factors
Low fracture toughness of steel at minimum service temperature: e.g. strain aged, high carbon.
Tensile stress (total) > 50 MPa e.g. applied stress and/or high residual stress (no or inappropriate postweld heat treatment).
Thickness typically > 12mm (i.e. increased triaxial stress).
Local stress raiser, e.g. weld defect (with high residual stress) or fatigue crack.
Increased risk with rapid or shock loading or strain rate > 0.1/sec (e.g. ballistic attack on tanks or explosive attack on

6. Theory of Brittle Fracture

(1) Brittle fracture initiates when KIc ; or c a; or Jc Ja where:
KIc = critical stress intensity factor, or fracture toughness of the material, MPa m (= 0.91 ksi in)
= Kc where thickness is insufficient for valid KIc
= factor for shape, size and type of loading, usually between 1 and 3 for pressure equipment
= total general stress (applied + thermal + residual), MPa
= effective crack size, m (= depth of surface crack, = depth of embedded crack,)
c = critical crack opening displacement, m
a = applied crack tip opening, (CODa)m
Jc = critical J integral, kJ/m2
Ja = applied J integral, kJ/m2
(2) Brittle Fracture propagates at > 1000m/s if driving force present. KIp (propagation) < KIc (initiation).

7. Avoidance By one or more of the following:

Use Standards e.g. AS 4100 Steel structures; AS 1210 Pressure vessels, AS 4041 Pressure piping etc.
Use notch tough parent material, HAZ & weld metal or ductile stainless steel or non-ferrous metal (not subject to transition
Use low H2 basic electrodes, controlled heat input, or fine grain low O2 weld metal.
Reduce a by good welding, WPQ, Qualified welder, NDE, QA, Inspection etc. Avoid structural notches.
Keep applied stress low e.g. higher safety factor, accurate shape to reduce local bending/discontinuity stress.
Use slow heating and cooling or thermal sleeve to reduce thermal stress. Limit impact/shock loading. Avoid low temperature
service condition. Reduce residual stress by PWHT or hot overload (e.g. hydrotest).
Consider crack arrestor e.g. high toughness weld or insert; or riveted joint.
For defect assessment and fracture mechanics - See BS 7910, API 579 or AS/NZS 3788.

8. Tests
Toughness: Charpy V (Joules, % crystallinity, lateral expansion) is main control test;
KIc; Jc; c; wide plate tests; explosion bulge; drop weight.
NDE for defects: UT, MT, PT, RT, VT, ET.
See Standards or use Fracture Mechanics e.g. Joules/Re -MPa >0.16 for Charpy test.

9. References
WTIA Technical Note 10; WRC Bulletin No 430; BS 7910; AS/NZS 3788; API 579.