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Heckman, David: Finite element analysis of pressure vessels, MBARI 1998

Finite Element Analysis of Pressure Vessels

David Heckman, University of California, Davis
Mentor: Gene Massion, Mark Greise
Summer 1998

Keywords: Pressure Vessel Finite Element Analysis ANSYS

Pressure vessels are a commonly used device in marine engineering. Until recently the primary analysis method had been hand
calculations and empirical curves. New computer advances have made finite element analysis (FEA) a practical tool in the study
of pressure vessels, especially in determining stresses in local areas such as penetrations, O-ring grooves and other areas difficult
to analyze by hand. This project set out to explore applicable methods using finite element analysis in pressure vessel analysis.
Having tested three dimensional, symmetric and axisymmetric models, the preliminary conclusion is that finite element analysis is
an extremely powerful tool when employed correctly. Depending on the desired solutions, there are different methods that offer
faster run times and less error. The two recommended methods included symmetric models using shell elements and axisymmetric
models using solid elements.
Contact elements were tested to determine their usefulness in modeling the interaction between pressure vessel cylinder walls
and end caps. When modeled correctly, contact elements proved to be useful, but the operator also needs to be able to interpret
the results properly. Problems such as local stress risers, unrealistic displacements and understanding how to use such data
become extremely important in this kind of analysis. This highlights the key to proper use of finite element analysis. The
analyst should be able to approximate the solution using classical methodology (hand calculations) in order to verify the

This project set out to verify finite element analysis, or FEA, when applied to pressure vessel design. While finite element analysis
offers another way to analyze structures, it requires an understanding of the program and subject being modeled. If the operator
does not use the correct model, time is wasted and more importantly the data is useless.
Finite element analysis is a powerful tool in the field of engineering. Initially, finite element analysis was used in aerospace
structural engineering. The technique has since been applied to nearly every engineering discipline from fluid dynamics to
The difficulty in analysis of stress and strain in structural engineering depends on the structure involved. As the structure grows in
complexity, so does the analysis. Many of the more commonly used structures in engineering have simplified calculations to
approximate stress and strain. However, these calculations often provide solutions only for the maximum stress and strain at
certain points in the structure. Furthermore, these calculations are usually only (1 of 7)
Heckman, David: Finite element analysis of pressure vessels, MBARI 1998
applicable given specific conditions applied to the structure.
For example, Roark’s Formulas for Stress and Strain is an engineering handbook containing equations for different structures
and associated loads. Table 28, condition 1c shows a thin walled cylinder with external pressure and ends capped (Figure 1). The
structure is essentially a can with pressure acting uniformly over the outside of the cylinder. In
order to use the given equations several conditions must be met. First, the cylinder wall thickness must be at least ten times smaller
than the cylinder radius. The calculated stresses and radial displacement that are calculated apply only to points far away from the
cylinder ends. Thus, while the strain of the cylinder is known towards the center, it is unknown at the ends. To complicate matters,
the stress and strain near the endcaps are not easy to calculate. Are the caps thick or thin? Are they actually part of the walls, or are
they bolted on? Do the caps fit perfect, or are there irregularities? All of these conditions will greatly affect the stress and strain.
Finite element analysis is one solution to the problem. In finite element analysis the structure is broken up into small pieces that
are easier to analyze. In the case of the cylinder it might be broken up into small cubes or plates called elements. All of the
elements make up the mesh (Fig 2). Each of these elements can be easily solved for by using
simple equations for stress and strain. As the number of elements increases (increasing mesh size), their size decreases and the
solution will grow more accurate.
An excellent comparison to finite element analysis can be found in looking at a simple curved line on a graph. If one is trying to find
the area under the curve, breaking the curve up into a series of rectangles and adding their areas can approximate the solution.
While the solution is not exact, it can be simpler than integrating to find the area. In order to increase solution accuracy the size of
the rectangles can be decreased to better approximate the curve.
With the recent increases in the speed and processing power of computers, finite element analysis has become a practical way to
solve many problems. The increase in computer capabilities has allowed for even greater numbers of elements and higher order
elements to be used so that calculated solutions will be fairly accurate.
Unfortunately, finite element analysis is often used in a manner that produces incorrect results. These errors are rarely due to a
problem with the finite element analysis program. Generally, they are a result of the operator incorrectly constraining or meshing a
structure in a way that does not simulate the actual structure being analyzed. Depending on the subject being modeled the method
used can become extremely important.
One application of finite element analysis in a marine environment is for pressure vessels. The majority of pressure vessels
employed by MBARI are the ‘can’ type. These are simply a cylinder with a flat cap on each end. There are several ways to model
pressure vessels using finite element analysis. If modeled correctly these methods should result in the same solution, but the time
spent in calculating solutions can be different. If the finite element analysis solution has an error of five percent and takes an hour
to run, that solution may be considered acceptable when compared to a solution with a one percent error that takes twenty hours to
run depending on the particular use of the structure and factor of safety.
Contact between parts can also become extremely important in structural analysis. For example in a pressure vessel, the end cap
will flex as the cylinder and cap are compressed against each other. These contact points can produce stress risers that may lead to
unexpected structural failures. If the cylinder wall deforms enough, it may buckle and fail. These conditions involve nonlinear
equations where both wall and end cap must be solved for simultaneously. In a linear equation the wall stress would be dependent on
the end cap stress, or the end cap stress would be dependent on the wall stress. However, in this case where both end cap and the wall
stresses vary as a result of their interactions the solution becomes extremely difficult to solve for. Finite element analysis enables
one to solve these nonlinear calculations.
For this study several methods were tested. Element types included shell and solid elements. In the case of shell elements, linear and
quadratic elements were compared. Models tested included three dimensional models, symmetric models and axisymmetric
Contact elements were then tested to determine how best to employ them to determine contact points between parts (2 of 7)
Heckman, David: Finite element analysis of pressure vessels, MBARI 1998
and the resultant stresses.


All finite element analysis was run using ANSYS 5.4 ( The
educational program was run on a Pentium 60 for smaller models. For more complex models, the full ANSYS 5.4 was run on a
Hewlett Packard Apollo workstation.

Element Types (Fig 3)

Shell Elements
Structures composed of thin walls can be modeled using shell elements. Shell elements are treated as two dimensional, with a
thickness for the element entered, but not shown on the model. Testing included linear (SHELL63) elements and quadratic
(SHELL91) elements. The linear elements have four nodes, one node at each corner of the element. The quadratic shell has a node
midway between corner nodes adding up to eight nodes per element.
Solid Elements
The eight node brick (SOLID45) element was used for comparison with other elements. In the eight node brick there is a node at
each corner of the brick.
For the axisymmetric model, plate elements were used. In the axisymmetric model, the solid remains two-dimensional and is
treated much like a shell element. The major difference is that instead of inputting a thickness, the plate is made axisymmetrical.
Once again there are linear (PLANE42) and quadratic (PLANE82) elements.
Contact Elements
Point to point (CONTAC52) elements join two nodes. If contact between two nodes is expected a contact element is created
between the nodes. This element, when set properly, will enable the nodes to touch but prevent them from passing each other.
Model Types
The pressure vessel models assumed a cylinder with both ends capped. To simplify modeling and hand calculations, both ends were
treated as part of the cylinder. The hand calculations from Roark’s Formulas for Stress and Strain table 28, condition 1c were
used for comparison.
Since the pressure vessels generally used by MBARI are axisymmetrical there are three ways to run the model; three
dimensional, symmetric and axisymmetric (Fig 4).
Each model was meshed with an element size of one centimeter along the cylinder and every fifteen degrees around the
circumference. To compare the linear and quadratic a second run was made where the linear model was meshed with twice as
many elements. This was run to compare linear and quadratic results where the number of nodes were equal.
File size was recorded after the model was run and all data had been saved, so it includes both the initial model and
final solution.
Error is calculated against the hand calculations from Roark’s Formulas for Stress and Strain. In the results s1 is the
meridonial stress, s2 is the circumferential, or hoop stress while DZ is the total change in length of the cylinder wall and DR is
the change in radius of the cylinder away from the ends.
Three Dimensional Model
This model is the complete pressure vessel model. One end is pinned along the edge in the Z direction. One node is (3 of 7)
Heckman, David: Finite element analysis of pressure vessels, MBARI 1998
also pinned in the X and another in the Y direction.

Symmetric Model
The symmetric model only models half of the pressure vessel. Symmetric boundary conditions are applied along the edges. One
end is pinned along the symmetry edge. One node is pinned in the X direction. The model is pinned in the Y direction due to the
symmetry of the model.
Axisymmetric Model
The axisymmetric model takes a two-dimensional cut to model the pressure vessel since it is symmetrical about the Z-axis.
Symmetry boundary conditions are applied along the endcaps. One node is pinned in the Y direction to prevent the model from
being under constrained.
The axisymmetric model was also run with two refined axisymmetric models. These models had element sizes of 0.5 and 0.25,
versus the original run of element size one. Thus, mesh size increased by four and sixteen times respectively.

RESULTS: Thin Wall

Element Type Run Time Output s1 Error s2 Error DZ Error DR Error

(s) File Size (%) (%) (%) (%)
4 Node Shell (SHELL63) 107 4.52 4 6.5
8 Node Shell (SHELL93) 557 5.67 4.8 6.2
4 Node Shell Doubled (SHELL63) 747 16.66 3.3 6.3
Symmetric 4 Node Shell 30 2.47 3.9
(SHELL63) 7.0
Symmetric 8 Node Shell 122 2.97 4.8
(SHELL93) 6.7 0.5 6.2
Symmetric 4 Node Shell Doubled 180 8.21 3.3
3.7 0.1 6.9 (4 of 7)
Heckman, David: Finite element analysis of pressure vessels, MBARI 1998

Full Solid Cylinder (SOLID45) 200 5.73 40.9 6.3 13.3 0.7
Axisymmetric Plane42 2 0.48 3.2
3.1 4.5 4.7
Asymmetric Plane42 Doubled 4 0.85 6.4
(PLANE42) 5.2 1.4 1.1
Asymmetric Plane42 Quadrupled 14 2.24 3.2
(PLANE42) 3.0 1.9 6.2

The axisymmetric model had by far the shortest run time with comparatively small computational error. Even the highly refined
axisymmetric model ran in half the time of the fastest shell model. The quadratic shell had the longest of the initial mesh size times.
However, when the number of linear shell elements was doubled, the run time increased above that of the quadratic models. The
solid model took roughly twice as long as the shell model to run.
Not surprisingly, run time is proportional to the number of elements for a given element type. In axisymmetric models, when the
mesh doubled, run time doubled and when mesh size quadrupled, the run time nearly quadrupled.
Symmetric models offered an impressive improvement in run time. For the shell elements run time was reduced by roughly
four times in each case.
File space was dependent on model size. The axisymmetric models were the smallest. The standard mesh axisymmetric model was
five times smaller than the next closest model. Doubling the mesh size resulted in slightly less than doubling the file size. A
quadratic model was larger than a linear model of the same mesh size, but significantly smaller than a twice as refined linear
model. The solid model was the largest of the initial mesh models.
The calculated error for all of the models was roughly the same. Only in one case did the error exceed seven percent. Even with the
refined meshes, error did not necessarily improve. Comparing the axisymmetric models showed that the error fluctuated around
three to six percent even with the higher refinement. This error is most likely the result of constraints applied to the model.
Constraints do not completely simulate reality and slight errors are a result.
It is also worth comparing the stress plots for each model. The shell (Fig 5) plots look different from the solid model (Fig 6)
and axisymmetric (Fig 7) plots due to the fact that the solid model shows the bending from the thick endcaps,
while the shell elements do not give the appearance of as much bending.
Since error between each element is fairly similar the choice of which to use will be dependent on the analysis being run. In cases
where the required wall thickness is unknown, shell elements are an excellent choice since the wall thickness can be iterated by
simply changing a constant without having to change the model geometry.
When the wall thickness is known solid and axisymmetric models can provide greater data resolution. Shells only provide data at
the wall edges. Solids allow for meshing inside the wall so the stress distribution can be studied through the wall thickness as well as
on the outer surface. However, solid models have extremely high run times and consume large amounts of disk space.
Axisymmetric models run considerably faster with no greater error. In fact, an axisymmetric model can be used with much greater
resolution than a full solid model, yet will still run in less time and use less disk space.
Problems Noted

Shell elements were found to have some unique problems that should be noted. When modeled using symmetric boundary
conditions, a small number of elements can result in incorrect stresses along the boundary. In a low element number model (Fig 8)
stresses along the boundary was slightly higher than for the rest of the cylinder. Another model (5 of 7)
Heckman, David: Finite element analysis of pressure vessels, MBARI 1998
were tested with a slightly finer mesh (Fig 9). The stress along the boundary decreased in the center of the cylinder, but was
still apparent near the corners.
When interacting with solids, shell element thickness does not completely apply. A model was tested where shells were used for
the cylinder wall. A cap was placed on the end of the cylinder for the end cap. When the cylinder walls were composed of solid
elements the cap showed a fairly even stress distribution (Fig 10). When a pressure was
applied the solid and shell interaction was not that of a flat surface against a flat surface. The shell acts as a point load on the solid
(Fig 11). In such models solids should be used instead of shell elements.

Contact Elements
For contact between the cylinder and end cap three-dimensional point to point (CONTAC52) elements were used. The CONTAC52
works by preventing the two nodes from passing through each other. An element is generated between both nodes and given a
stiffness. If the stiffness is too low the outer node will pass through the inner node. However, if the stiffness is set too high the
problem will not converge and no solution will be found. Thus, some experience in using these elements is useful
The first test model succeeded in preventing the outer nodes from penetrating the inner nodes. The model consisted of two cylinders
composed of linear shell elements. The outer cylinder was longer than the inner cylinder to illustrate the effects of the inner and outer
shell interactions. When the outer shell compresses and impacts the inner shell some of the load is transferred to the inner shell so the
displacement of both shells will be lower than the end of the outer cylinder that is unsupported.
For the initial tests all inner and outer nodes lined up radially so that as the cylinders compressed the nodes would directly impact
one another (Fig 12). Under these conditions the outer cylinder stopped as soon as it impacted the inner cylinder (Fig 13). The
inner cylinder showed the greatest stress at the end where the outer cylinder started bending as it
was unsupported (Fig 14).
Axisymmetric models were tested using CONTAC52 elements. Initial tests were successful in using the contact elements to
prevent penetration between the endcap and cylinder (Fig 15). Stress risers are located at the point where they impacted (Fig

A larger model was next run using contact elements. This pressure vessel was far more complex, including a center hole and O-
ring grooves (Fig 17). The solution was within five percent of hand calculations for the cylinder wall (Fig 18) and the center of
the end cap (Fig 19). However, extremely high stresses were found at the contact point, roughly
945 MPa (137 ksi) (Fig 20). The only other area in the pressure vessel that came even close to this stress was at the other end
where stress reached 303 MPa (44 ksi).
The extremely high stress was primarily the result of the sharp corner of the cylinder model. What actually would happen in a
ductile material is the edge of the cylinder would deform to reduce the stress. This deformation would increase the contact area
over which the force between the cylinder and end cap acts, which in turn reduces stress.

Finite element analysis is an extremely powerful tool for pressure vessel analysis when used correctly. Tested models were run with
errors ranging from seven to nearly zero percent error and could be run in a relatively short time. However, even with such results
the operator still is required to be knowledgeable of not just how to run the finite element analysis, but also how to read the
results. Data must be verified with hand calculations to confirm that solutions are relatively accurate. Where results are
questionable, such as in the final contact element model, one must understand just what the finite element model is modeling and
how well this approximates the actual subject. For this pressure vessel, the model had a sharp corner, where in the actual pressure
vessel there is a small radius which reduces the stress. (6 of 7)
Heckman, David: Finite element analysis of pressure vessels, MBARI 1998
For pressure vessels finite element analysis provides an additional tool for use in analysis. However, it must be compared to other
available data, not taken as being correct just because it looks right. Used with this understanding, finite element analysis offers
great insight into the complex interactions found in pressure vessel design.


Thanks to David Beals for help in the editing of this paper and assistance in modeling.

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