Modes and Mechanisms of Material and Structural Failure

pressure vessel

Introduction to the modes and mechanisms of failure

When discussing the failure of materials or structures, both “modes” and “mechanisms” are considered. While they are often used interchangeably, they denote different concepts:

  • Mode of Failure: Refers to the observable nature or characteristic of the failure, essentially the “how” it fails. For instance, it could be a crack, fracture, deformation, etc.
  • Mechanism of Failure: Refers to the underlying process or the root cause leading to that failure, essentially the “why” it fails.

Modes of Failure:

  • Tensile Failure: Where a component breaks under tension, leading to a pulling apart.
  • Compressive Failure: Occurs when a material collapses or shortens under compression.
  • Shear Failure: When materials slide apart along a plane.
  • Buckling: Sudden sideward deflection of a structural member subjected to axial compression.
  • Torsional Failure: Occurs due to twisting stresses.
  • Fatigue: Repeated loading and unloading leading to crack initiation and propagation.
  • Creep: Slow, continuous deformation under constant load, especially at elevated temperatures.
  • Brittle Fracture: A sudden breakage with little to no plastic deformation prior to failure.
  • Ductile Fracture: Characterized by significant plastic deformation before the actual fracture, often accompanied by necking.
  • Twisting or Warping: Deformation without a complete break, usually due to torsional or uneven loads.
  • Pitting: Localized corrosion leading to the formation of small holes or pits on the surface.
  • Spalling: The flaking or chipping off of concrete or masonry surfaces, often due to freeze-thaw cycles or corrosion of reinforcing bars.

Mechanisms of Failure:

  • Yielding: The material undergoes plastic deformation without necessarily breaking, due to stresses surpassing the material’s yield strength.
  • Necking: A decrease in cross-sectional area observed in ductile materials as they are pulled in tension.
  • Work Hardening: When a material becomes harder and stronger due to plastic deformation, but also more brittle.
  • Fracture: Breaking of materials due to stress. It can be brittle (with minimal plastic deformation) or ductile (with significant plastic deformation).
  • Fatigue: Failure due to repeated cyclic loading, even if the maximum load is below the yield strength of the material.
  • Creep: Time-dependent deformation due to prolonged exposure to stress, especially prominent at high temperatures.
  • Corrosion: Chemical interaction between the material and its environment, leading to material degradation.
  • Wear: Removal of material from surfaces as they slide or roll against each other.
  • Oxidation: Chemical reaction with oxygen, causing degradation, especially at elevated temperatures.
  • Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC): Combination of sustained tensile stress and a corrosive environment leading to cracks.
  • Hydrogen Embrittlement: The introduction and diffusion of hydrogen into metals, making them brittle.
  • Erosion: Loss of material due to the impact of a fluid or particles.
  • Thermal Shock: Rapid temperature changes causing differential expansion, leading to cracks or failures, especially in ceramics or refractory materials.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) Degradation: Prolonged exposure to UV radiation leading to material degradation, particularly in polymers.
  • Moisture Absorption: Some materials, especially certain plastics, can absorb moisture from the environment, leading to a change in their properties and potential failure.
  • Microbial Induced Corrosion (MIC): Corrosion accelerated by microbial activity, often seen in pipelines and marine structures.
  • Radiation Damage: Atomic displacements caused by high-energy radiation can lead to structural defects in materials, often observed in nuclear reactor components.
  • Oxygen Enrichment: In environments with high oxygen concentration, materials may combust or degrade faster.
  • Chemical Attack: Exposure to aggressive chemicals can lead to degradation or dissolution of materials, particularly in industrial settings.

Implications and Considerations:

  • Holistic View: In practical scenarios, failure is often a result of a combination of different modes and mechanisms. For example, a metal part in an engine might first corrode due to high temperatures and then fail by fatigue because of cyclic loads.
  • Material Selection: Understanding the potential modes and mechanisms of failure is crucial for selecting the right material for a specific application. For instance, a component expected to experience high cyclic loads would ideally be made of a material with good fatigue resistance.
  • Preventive Measures: Knowledge of potential failure mechanisms can lead to preventive measures. For instance, coatings can be applied to metals to prevent corrosion, or materials can be annealed to relieve internal stresses.
  • Diagnostic Value: When a failure occurs, identifying the mode and mechanism is key to diagnosing the root cause, enabling effective solutions to be devised and future failures to be prevented.
  • Design Evolution: Over time, as industries gather more data on failures, the design of components evolves. For example, airplane designs have changed over the decades as our understanding of fatigue and other failure mechanisms has grown.

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FAQ: Modes and Mechanisms of Failure in Pressure Vessels

What are the common modes of failure in pressure vessels?

Pressure vessels can fail due to various reasons, but the most common modes of failure include:

  • Material Fatigue: Repeated stress cycles can cause material fatigue, leading to cracks and eventual failure.
  • Corrosion: Chemical reactions, especially in vessels storing corrosive substances, can weaken the vessel walls over time.
  • Overpressure: Exceeding the design pressure can cause deformation or rupture of the vessel.
  • Brittle Fracture: In low temperatures, some materials may become brittle and crack under pressure.
  • Stress Corrosion Cracking: A combination of tensile stress and a corrosive environment can lead to cracks.

How does improper design contribute to pressure vessel failure?

Improper design can significantly increase the risk of failure in several ways:

  • Inadequate Material Selection: Choosing materials that are not suitable for the operating conditions (temperature, pressure, chemical exposure) can lead to premature failure.
  • Faulty Design Calculations: Incorrect calculations of wall thickness, diameter, or other design aspects can compromise the vessel’s integrity.
  • Lack of Safety Features: Omitting essential safety components like pressure relief valves can lead to catastrophic failure under abnormal conditions.

Can manufacturing defects lead to pressure vessel failure? How?

Yes, manufacturing defects can be critical in pressure vessel failures:

  • Welding Defects: Poor welding techniques can create weak points that may lead to leaks or cracks.
  • Material Flaws: Inconsistencies in the material, like inclusions or voids, can reduce the overall strength of the vessel.
  • Dimensional Inaccuracies: Deviations from the specified dimensions can affect the vessel’s ability to withstand pressure.

What role does operational mishandling play in pressure vessel failure?

Operational mishandling can lead to failures in several ways:

  • Exceeding Operational Limits: Operating the vessel beyond its designed pressure or temperature limits can cause stress beyond what the vessel can handle.
  • Inadequate Maintenance: Failing to regularly inspect and maintain the vessel can allow issues like corrosion or fatigue to go unnoticed until failure occurs.
  • Improper Installation: Incorrect installation can lead to uneven stress distribution, increasing the likelihood of failure.

How can environmental factors contribute to the failure of pressure vessels?

Environmental factors can significantly impact the integrity of pressure vessels:

  • Temperature Extremes: Exposure to very high or low temperatures can affect the material properties, leading to reduced strength or brittleness.
  • Corrosive Environments: Exposure to harsh chemicals or saltwater can accelerate corrosion, weakening the vessel over time.
  • External Impacts: Physical impacts from external sources can cause dents or deformations that compromise the vessel’s structural integrity.

Understanding these modes and mechanisms of failure is crucial for the safe design, manufacturing, and operation of pressure vessels. Regular inspections, adherence to design specifications, and proper maintenance are key to preventing such failures.


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.

The company excels in creating prefabricated facilities, modules, and packages, reinforcing its stance as a forerunner in innovation and quality. This proficiency is further mirrored in their Modular Skids offering, where they provide an array of Modular Fabricated Skid Packages and Packaged equipment. Each piece is tailored to client specifications, underlining their commitment to delivering precision and excellence in every project they undertake.

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