Failure Criteria for Pressure Vessels

pressure vessel

Introduction to failure criteria for pressure vessel

Pressure vessels play a critical role in various industrial applications, from chemical plants and power generation facilities to oil refineries and aerospace engineering. These vessels are designed to contain and withstand the pressure exerted by their contents, which can range from gases and liquids to steam and chemicals. Ensuring the safety and reliability of pressure vessels is paramount, as their failure can lead to catastrophic consequences, including injuries, environmental disasters, and significant financial losses.

In this article, we delve into the complex world of pressure vessel failures, focusing on the vital concept of failure criteria. As an SEO specialist with a background in keyword optimization and eight years of experience, I aim to provide you with a comprehensive and accessible resource for understanding the various failure modes that pressure vessels can experience.

We will explore the different types of pressure vessel failures, such as brittle fracture, fatigue failure, creep deformation, and corrosion, highlighting the underlying factors that contribute to each type. By gaining insight into these failure modes, individuals and organizations can better assess and mitigate the risks associated with pressure vessels in their operations.

Types of Pressure Vessel Failures

Pressure vessels, despite their robust designs and construction, are susceptible to several distinct failure modes. Understanding these failure types is crucial for engineers, operators, and maintenance personnel to prevent accidents and ensure the safe operation of these vessels. Here, we’ll explore the most common types of pressure vessel failures:

Brittle Fracture:


 A brittle fracture is a sudden and catastrophic failure that occurs without any significant plastic deformation. It often happens at low temperatures and involves the rapid propagation of cracks.


 This type of failure is typically caused by low-temperature conditions, high-stress concentrations, and materials with low toughness.


Avoiding low-temperature service, using materials with high fracture toughness, and implementing proper stress analysis and design are essential for preventing brittle fracture.

Fatigue Failure:


 Fatigue failure occurs due to the repetitive application of cyclic stresses below the material’s yield strength, leading to crack initiation and growth over time.


Factors such as vibration, thermal cycling, and fluctuating pressure can contribute to fatigue failure. It is also influenced by the material’s fatigue properties.


Designing for fatigue resistance, conducting fatigue life assessments, and implementing maintenance practices to detect and repair cracks are vital for preventing fatigue failure.

Creep Deformation:


Creep deformation is a time-dependent process where materials slowly deform under constant load or stress at elevated temperatures. It can lead to permanent distortion or rupture.


Elevated temperatures and high-stress levels are primary contributors to creep deformation. Materials with poor creep resistance are more susceptible.


Minimizing exposure to high temperatures, using materials designed for elevated temperature applications, and conducting regular inspections to detect creep deformation are key preventive measures.



Corrosion involves the deterioration of a pressure vessel’s material due to chemical reactions with the surrounding environment, leading to thinning of the vessel walls.


Exposure to corrosive substances, improper material selection, and inadequate protective coatings can contribute to corrosion.


 Employing corrosion-resistant materials, implementing corrosion monitoring and control measures, and conducting regular inspections and maintenance are essential for preventing corrosion-related failures.

Failure Criteria for Pressure Vessels

Understanding the criteria that lead to the failure of pressure vessels is essential for ensuring their safe operation and preventing potentially catastrophic incidents. Pressure vessel failures can be attributed to various factors, and each failure mode has its unique set of criteria. Here, we will delve into the failure criteria for pressure vessels across different failure modes:

Brittle Fracture Criteria:

Introduction to Brittle Fracture:

 A brittle fracture is a sudden, catastrophic failure that occurs without significant plastic deformation. It is characterized by the rapid propagation of cracks through the material.

Material Properties:

The primary criterion for brittle fracture prevention is the fracture toughness (KIC) of the material. Materials with high fracture toughness are less prone to brittle fracture.

Stress Intensity Factor (K):

 The stress intensity factor (K) is used to assess whether the applied stress exceeds the critical stress intensity factor (KIC) for a given material. If K > KIC, the material may be susceptible to brittle fracture.

Impact Testing:

Charpy V-notch tests and other impact tests are employed to evaluate the material’s resistance to brittle fracture under specific conditions.

Fatigue Failure Criteria:

Introduction to Fatigue Failure:

Fatigue failure occurs due to cyclic loading below the material’s yield strength, leading to the initiation and growth of cracks over time.

S-N Curves:

 Stress-life (S-N) curves are used to determine a material’s fatigue life under different stress levels. These curves provide insights into the material’s fatigue behavior.

Fatigue Strength Reduction Factors:

Various factors, including load type, temperature, and environmental conditions, affect a material’s fatigue strength. Reduction factors are applied to account for these influences.

Factors Affecting Fatigue Life:

Factors such as stress concentration, surface finish, and notch sensitivity can influence fatigue life.

Creep Deformation Criteria:

Introduction to Creep Deformation:

Creep deformation is a time-dependent process where materials deform under constant load or stress at elevated temperatures.

Creep Curves:

Creep curves help assess a material’s creep behavior, including primary, secondary, and tertiary stages. The Larson-Miller parameter is often used for predicting rupture.

Larson-Miller Parameter:

The Larson-Miller parameter correlates temperature, time, and stress to predict the time to rupture under creep conditions.

Factors Influencing Creep Behavior:

 Elevated temperatures, stress levels, and material composition significantly impact creep deformation.

Corrosion Failure Criteria:

Introduction to Corrosion:

 Corrosion involves the chemical deterioration of a material due to reactions with the environment, leading to wall thinning and material loss.

Corrosion Types:

Different types of corrosion, such as pitting, uniform, and stress corrosion, have specific criteria and susceptibility factors.

Corrosion Prevention:

Preventive measures include material selection, protective coatings, corrosion-resistant alloys, and monitoring for corrosion-related changes.

Regulatory Standards and Codes

Pressure vessels operate under strict regulatory guidelines and codes to ensure their safety, reliability, and compliance with industry standards. These regulations are established to prevent failures, protect personnel, and safeguard the environment. Here, we’ll explore the key aspects of regulatory standards and codes for pressure vessels:

ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code (BPVC):


The ASME BPVC is one of the most widely recognized codes for pressure vessel design, construction, and inspection. It is published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).


The BPVC covers a wide range of pressure vessel types, including boilers, pressure vessels, and nuclear components, and provides detailed guidelines for their design, fabrication, testing, and inspection.


Pressure vessels built to ASME standards often require certification, denoted by an ASME stamp or symbol, indicating compliance with the code.

API Standards:


The American Petroleum Institute (API) develops standards specific to the petrochemical and oil and gas industries. API standards, such as API 510 (Pressure Vessel Inspection Code), provide guidelines for the inspection, repair, alteration, and integrity management of pressure vessels used in these sectors.


API standards are widely used in refineries, chemical plants, and offshore drilling platforms

National Board Inspection Code (NBIC):


The NBIC provides standardized procedures for the inspection, repair, and alteration of pressure vessels. It also offers guidelines for the registration and stamping of pressure vessels.


The NBIC complements other codes like ASME by providing additional guidance on pressure vessel inspection and repair practices.

Jurisdictional Regulations:

Local and National Regulations:

 In addition to industry-specific codes, pressure vessels must comply with local, state, and national regulations. These regulations may include permitting, safety assessments, and compliance with environmental standards.

Safety Authorities:

Local authorities and safety agencies are responsible for ensuring that pressure vessels within their jurisdiction adhere to safety regulations.

International Standards:

Global Standards:

 Pressure vessel codes and standards often align with international norms, ensuring consistency and safety across borders.

ISO Standards:

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) offers standards related to pressure vessels, including ISO 16528 (Boilers and Pressure Vessels – Design), which provides a global perspective on design and safety.

Material and Welding Standards:

Material Specifications:

Pressure vessel materials must meet specific standards to ensure their strength, durability, and compatibility with the intended service conditions.

Welding Codes:

Welding procedures and techniques must adhere to codes such as AWS D1.1 (Structural Welding Code – Steel) to ensure the quality and integrity of pressure vessel welds.

Case Studies

To truly grasp the significance of pressure vessel failures and the consequences they can have, let’s examine real-world case studies that highlight the lessons learned from these unfortunate incidents. These case studies serve as powerful reminders of the importance of diligent design, regular maintenance, and compliance with industry standards.

Piper Alpha Platform Disaster (1988):


The Piper Alpha platform, located in the North Sea, suffered one of the deadliest offshore oil and gas platform disasters in history. The explosion and subsequent fires resulted in 167 fatalities and massive economic losses.


The primary cause was a gas leak due to the failure of a pressure safety valve. Inadequate safety systems, communication failures, and a lack of proper maintenance procedures contributed to the disaster.


The Piper Alpha disaster underscored the importance of robust safety systems, clear communication, and rigorous maintenance protocols in offshore operations.

Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster (1986):


 The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, in which seven astronauts lost their lives, was caused by the failure of an O-ring seal in one of the solid rocket boosters.


The O-ring failure was attributed to low temperatures at the time of launch, which reduced the O-ring’s flexibility. There were communication failures and organizational issues that led to the launch proceeding despite concerns.


 The Challenger disaster highlighted the critical role of proper material selection, environmental considerations, and organizational culture in ensuring the safety of pressure-containing components in aerospace applications.

BP Texas City Refinery Explosion (2005):


 An explosion at the BP Texas City refinery resulted in 15 fatalities, numerous injuries, and extensive damage. The incident was one of the most significant refinery accidents in the United States.


The explosion was caused by the overfilling and overheating of a distillation tower. Contributing factors included inadequate training, poor communication, and insufficient process safety management.


This disaster emphasized the need for comprehensive training, effective process safety management, and clear procedures to prevent overfill incidents in industrial processes.

T2 Laboratories Explosion (2007):


An explosion at the T2 Laboratories in Florida claimed the lives of four people and resulted in substantial damage. The facility produced chemicals used in the pharmaceutical and food industries.


The explosion was triggered by a runaway reaction in a pressure vessel. Insufficient process knowledge, a lack of appropriate safety measures, and inadequate emergency response procedures were contributing factors.


 The T2 Laboratories incident highlighted the importance of thorough process hazard analysis, proper vessel design, and emergency response planning in chemical manufacturing operations.

Preventive Measures and Best Practices

Ensuring the safe and reliable operation of pressure vessels requires a proactive approach that includes preventive measures and adherence to best practices throughout their lifecycle. Implementing these strategies is essential for preventing failures and maintaining the integrity of pressure vessels. Here are key preventive measures and best practices:

Materials Selection:

Select Suitable Materials:

Choose materials that are compatible with the process fluids, operating temperatures, and pressures. Consider corrosion resistance, fatigue strength, and fracture toughness.

Design Considerations:

Compliance with Codes:

 Design pressure vessels in strict accordance with industry codes and standards, such as ASME BPVC, API, and others applicable to your industry.

Factor in Safety Margins:

Design with safety margins to account for uncertainties, load fluctuations, and potential material degradation over time.

Stress Analysis:

 Perform thorough stress analysis to identify and mitigate stress concentrations, especially near welds and attachments.

Fabrication and Welding:

Quality Control:

 Maintain rigorous quality control during fabrication, including material inspections, weld inspections, and non-destructive testing (NDT) to ensure proper weld quality.

Qualified Welders:

Employ certified and skilled welders who follow approved welding procedures and practices.

Inspection and Testing Protocols:

Regular Inspections:

Conduct regular inspections to detect early signs of wear, corrosion, or damage. Follow inspection intervals specified by relevant codes and standards.

Non-Destructive Testing (NDT):

Employ NDT techniques such as ultrasonic testing, radiographic testing, and magnetic particle testing to assess the condition of pressure vessels without causing damage.

Pressure Testing:

Perform hydrostatic or pneumatic pressure testing during fabrication and periodically during the vessel’s lifecycle to identify leaks or weaknesses.

Maintenance and Repair Strategies:

Scheduled Maintenance:

 Develop and adhere to a maintenance schedule that includes cleaning, corrosion monitoring, and necessary repairs.

Emergency Procedures:

Establish clear emergency shutdown procedures and response plans in case of sudden pressure vessel failures or leaks.

Repair Guidelines:

Follow industry-approved repair procedures when addressing issues identified during inspections or maintenance.

Pressure Relief Devices:

Proper Sizing:

Ensure pressure relief devices (e.g., relief valves) are correctly sized and set to prevent overpressure scenarios.

Regular Testing:

Test and recalibrate relief devices regularly to ensure they function as intended.

Environmental Considerations:

Corrosion Control:

Implement corrosion control measures, such as protective coatings and cathodic protection, to extend the lifespan of pressure vessel materials.


 Properly insulate vessels to control temperature fluctuations and reduce the risk of thermal stress-related failures.

Training and Education:

Employee Training:

 Provide comprehensive training to personnel involved in pressure vessel operation, maintenance, and inspection.


 Promote a culture of safety awareness among employees and encourage reporting of potential issues.

Compliance with Regulations:

Stay Informed:

Keep up-to-date with changes in industry standards and regulations and ensure compliance with all relevant codes and guidelines.

Records and Documentation:


Maintain thorough records of pressure vessel design, fabrication, inspection, and maintenance activities. This documentation is essential for auditing and traceability.

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FAQ: Failure Criteria for Pressure Vessels

What are failure criteria for pressure vessels?

Failure criteria for pressure vessels are the conditions under which a pressure vessel is considered to have failed or is likely to fail. These criteria are based on the vessel’s ability to withstand internal pressures, temperatures, and environmental conditions without experiencing material failure, deformation beyond acceptable limits, or loss of containment. Common criteria include exceeding the material’s yield strength, reaching the fracture toughness limit, or the initiation and propagation of cracks due to fatigue or stress corrosion cracking.

How is overpressure a failure criterion, and what measures prevent it?

Overpressure is a critical failure criterion as it occurs when the internal pressure exceeds the vessel’s design pressure, risking rupture or explosion. Preventative measures include installing pressure relief valves and rupture disks to safely vent excess pressure. Regular maintenance and inspection of these safety devices, along with proper operational procedures, are essential to prevent overpressure situations.

Why is corrosion considered a failure criterion, and how can it be managed?

Corrosion is considered a failure criterion because it weakens the structural integrity of the pressure vessel by gradually degrading the material. Managing corrosion involves selecting corrosion-resistant materials, applying protective coatings, using corrosion inhibitors, and implementing cathodic protection. Regular inspections are crucial to detect and address corrosion before it leads to failure.

What role does fatigue play in pressure vessel failure criteria?

Fatigue is a significant failure criterion as it involves the initiation and growth of cracks under cyclic loading conditions, which can ultimately lead to catastrophic failure. Designing pressure vessels to withstand expected stress cycles, using materials with high fatigue resistance, and avoiding sharp geometrical features that can act as stress concentrators are key strategies to mitigate fatigue.

How can stress corrosion cracking be prevented, given its role as a failure criterion?

Preventing stress corrosion cracking, a failure criterion where cracks develop and propagate in a corrosive environment under tensile stress, involves selecting materials resistant to both corrosion and cracking for the specific environment. Designing to minimize tensile stresses, using stress-relief treatments, and controlling the chemical composition of the environment can significantly reduce the risk.


In the realm of industrial solutions, Red River emerges as a pioneer, offering a diverse range of custom-engineered products and facilities. Among our specialties is the design and production of Custom/OEM Pressure Vessels, meticulously crafted to meet individual client requirements, ensuring performance under various pressure conditions. Our expertise extends to the domain of prefabrication, where Red River leads with distinction.

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