Pressure Vessel Failure Mechanisms

pressure vessels

Understanding Failure Criteria for Pressure Vessels

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

Brittle Fracture:

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 in order to prevent accidents and ensure the safe operation of these vessels. Here, we’ll explore the most common types of pressure vessel failures:


 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.

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FAQ: Pressure Vessel Failure Mechanisms

What are the primary causes of pressure vessel failures?

Pressure vessel failures are primarily caused by overpressure, corrosion, fatigue, and stress corrosion cracking. Overpressure occurs when the vessel is subjected to pressure beyond its design capacity, potentially leading to rupture. Corrosion results from chemical reactions between the vessel material and its environment, weakening the structure. Fatigue is caused by repeated stress cycles that lead to the initiation and growth of cracks. Stress corrosion cracking is a specific type of failure that occurs under the combined influence of tensile stress and a corrosive environment.

How can overpressure be effectively managed or prevented?

Effective management of overpressure involves the use of safety devices such as pressure relief valves and rupture disks, which are designed to release excess pressure safely. Regular maintenance and testing of these devices ensure they function correctly when needed. Additionally, implementing proper operational procedures and training for personnel can help prevent situations that lead to overpressure.

What strategies can be employed to minimize corrosion in pressure vessels?

Minimizing corrosion in pressure vessels involves selecting materials that are resistant to the specific types of corrosion expected in their operating environment. Applying protective coatings and cathodic protection can also mitigate corrosion risks. Regular inspections help identify and address corrosion issues early, and controlling the exposure to corrosive substances through process adjustments can further reduce the risk.

How does fatigue impact pressure vessels, and what preventive measures can be taken?

Fatigue impacts pressure vessels through the development of cracks under cyclic loading conditions. To prevent fatigue, it is crucial to design vessels to withstand the expected stress cycles over their service life, using appropriate materials and design features that minimize stress concentrations. Regular monitoring and maintenance can identify early signs of fatigue, allowing for corrective actions before failure occurs.

Can stress corrosion cracking be prevented, and what are the best practices to achieve this?

Preventing stress corrosion cracking involves selecting materials that are resistant to both stress corrosion and the specific corrosive environment of the vessel. Designing to minimize tensile stresses within the vessel, using stress-relief treatments, and avoiding sharp geometrical features that can concentrate stress are also effective strategies. Controlling the chemical composition of the environment in contact with the vessel, such as by using corrosion inhibitors, can further 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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