Understanding Different Types of Failure in Pressure Vessels

pressure vessel

What are the different types of failure in pressure vessels?

Pressure vessels play an indispensable role in countless industries around the world. From petrochemical plants and power generation stations to pharmaceutical factories and food processing units, these closed containers are designed to hold gases or liquids at a pressure substantially different from the ambient pressure. Their primary function may seem straightforward, but the science behind their design, manufacturing, and operation is anything but simple. Ensuring the safety and efficiency of pressure vessels isn’t just about following design specifications or using the right materials; it’s also about understanding the myriad ways they can fail. Recognizing the early signs of these failure modes and understanding their causes can not only prevent potential disasters but also optimize performance and prolong vessel life. In this article, we’ll explore the different types of pressure vessel failures, delving deep into their causes, and discussing strategies for prevention.

Brief Background on Pressure Vessels

At their core, pressure vessels are industrial containers specially crafted to hold and store liquids or gases under varying degrees of pressure, often far removed from the standard atmospheric conditions. Their simplistic, robust design belies the complex physics and engineering principles that underpin their construction.

Definition and Primary Functions 

A pressure vessel can be defined as a closed container designed to safely contain substances under pressure. This pressure can either be derived externally or internally, based on the vessel’s application. Their principal functions include heat exchange, separation of components, and storage containers, among others.

Materials Used 

The construction material for pressure vessels is chosen based on several factors including the intended substance to be stored, the operating environment, and the desired lifespan. Common materials include carbon steels, stainless steels, and alloys like Hastelloy and Inconel. Each material offers unique advantages in terms of strength, corrosion resistance, and thermal conductivity.

Industries of Application 

Pressure vessels have found a place in a myriad of industries. The oil and gas industry uses them for processes like refining and distillation. In the chemical industry, they’re vital for reactions that need to be conducted under controlled pressures. Power plants rely on them for steam generation, while the pharmaceutical industry uses them in the manufacturing of medicines. Moreover, they can be found in breweries, refrigeration units, and even in spacecraft for propulsion systems.

Primary Causes of Pressure Vessel Failures

Pressure vessels, despite being meticulously designed and manufactured, are not impervious to failures. Their very nature of holding substances under extreme pressure conditions makes them susceptible to various threats. Understanding these primary causes is the first step in mitigating risks and ensuring a prolonged and safe operational lifespan for these containers.

Excessive Internal or External Pressures


Pressure vessels are designed to operate within specific pressure ranges. Deviating from these specified conditions, either due to overfilling or external factors, can compromise the structural integrity of the vessel.


Over-pressurization can lead to deformation, rupture, or even catastrophic explosions, endangering both personnel and facilities.

Corrosive Environments


Many substances stored or processed in pressure vessels are corrosive in nature. Additionally, external environmental factors can also lead to corrosion.


Corrosion can thin the vessel walls, weaken structural integrity, and eventually cause leaks or breaches.

Material Defects or Degradation:


Even with high manufacturing standards, defects can sometimes occur in the materials used. Over time, materials can also degrade due to wear and tear or other environmental factors.


 Defects and degradation reduce the strength of the vessel, making it susceptible to cracks, leaks, and failures.

Improper Operation or Maintenance:


Operational errors, like improper heating or cooling rates, or inadequate maintenance, such as infrequent inspections, can jeopardize the vessel’s safety.


Such lapses can lead to a shortened vessel lifespan, undetected wear and tear, and heightened risks of failures.

Thermal Stresses:


Rapid temperature fluctuations or operating outside of designed temperature ranges can introduce significant thermal stresses.


Thermal stresses can cause material fatigue, and cracks, and weaken the overall structure of the vessel.

Poor Design or Construction:


Inadequate design, improper material selection, or poor construction practices can render a pressure vessel inherently unsafe from its inception.


These vessels are more likely to experience premature failures, leaks, and structural problems.

Different Types of Failure in Pressure Vessels

Brittle Fracture

One of the most abrupt and catastrophic forms of failure in pressure vessels is the brittle fracture. Unlike ductile failures, where materials deform extensively before breaking, brittle fractures occur with little to no warning, making them particularly concerning.

Definition and Characteristics:

Brittle Fracture:

It’s a form of failure where a material breaks or shatters without significant plastic deformation, essentially “snapping” rather than “stretching.”


It typically exhibits sharp, cleaved, or sometimes shiny fracture surfaces. The failure occurs at a speed much faster than that of ductile fracture, often in an explosive manner.

Causes of Brittle Fracture:

Low Temperature:

Materials, especially certain types of steel, become more brittle at lower temperatures. When exposed to cold environments, they may not exhibit the ductile properties they possess at room temperature or warmer.

Material Flaws:

Inclusions, voids, or other microscopic defects in the material can act as stress concentration points, making the vessel more prone to brittle fracture.

High-Impact Loads:

Sudden, intense loads or shocks can lead to a brittle fracture, especially if the material is already at or near its fracture point.

Residual Stresses:

These are stresses that remain in a solid material after the original cause of the stress, such as thermal expansion or contraction, has been removed. High levels of residual stress can increase the likelihood of brittle fracture.

Prevention Strategies:

Material Selection:

Choosing materials that maintain their ductility in the expected operating conditions, including potential low-temperature environments.

Regular Inspections:

Detect and address any material flaws or defects that might predispose the vessel to brittle fracture.

Controlled Heating and Cooling:

Avoiding rapid temperature changes which can introduce residual stresses.

Impact Resistance Measures:

Implementing safeguards against potential impacts, such as physical barriers or isolation.

Post-Weld Heat Treatments:

To relieve residual stresses formed during welding, thus reducing the likelihood of brittle fracture.

Ductile Fracture

In stark contrast to the sudden and often explosive nature of brittle fractures, ductile fractures offer a more “graceful” mode of failure. Ductile fracture involves considerable deformation, often giving warning signs before complete failure occurs, making it somewhat more predictable and manageable.

Definition and Characteristics:

Ductile Fracture:

This is a type of failure where a material undergoes significant plastic deformation before breaking. It’s often associated with a stretching or necking process.


The fracture surfaces of a ductile breakage are typically dull or fibrous in appearance, unlike the shiny or cleaved surfaces of brittle fractures. There may also be visible signs of deformation around the fracture site.

Causes of Ductile Fracture:

Excessive Stress:

Applying stresses beyond the material’s yield strength can lead to ductile fracture.

High Strain Rates:

While some materials can handle slow applications of force, rapid loading can exceed their ability to deform ductilely.

Thermal Stresses:

While rapid temperature changes can induce brittle fractures in some materials, they can also cause ductile failures in others, especially if there’s a combination of temperature-induced stresses and external loading.

Material Imperfections:

Though they might not result in brittle fractures, some material flaws can still lead to ductile failure, especially under prolonged loading.

Prevention Strategies:

Material Selection:

Opt for materials with high ductility, especially if the operating environment will involve varying stresses or strain rates.

Operational Monitoring:

Continuously monitor the operational parameters to ensure stresses remain within safe limits.

Regular Inspections:

Periodically check for signs of deformation or “stretching” in the vessel, as these can be precursors to ductile fracture.

Stress Relief Treatments:

Employ treatments such as annealing to reduce residual stresses within the material, thus enhancing its ductility.

Training and Education:

Ensure that operators understand the importance of gradual changes in loading and the risks associated with abrupt operational changes.

Creep Failure

Over prolonged exposure to high temperatures and stresses, materials can slowly and progressively deform, a phenomenon known as creep. In pressure vessels, especially those in high-temperature applications like power plants and chemical processing units, creep failure can lead to serious operational challenges and safety concerns.

Definition and Characteristics:


Creep is the time-dependent deformation of a material under constant applied stress, especially at elevated temperatures.


Initial deformation might be slow (primary creep), followed by a steadier, constant rate of deformation (secondary creep), culminating in an accelerated deformation leading to failure (tertiary creep).

Causes of Creep Failure:

Prolonged Exposure to High Temperatures:

Creep is primarily a high-temperature phenomenon, intensifying as the material approaches its melting point.

Constant Applied Stress:

Materials under consistent stress are more susceptible, especially when combined with high temperatures.

Material Structure:

The grain size, phase distribution, and other microstructural properties can influence creep resistance. Certain alloys are more prone to creep than others.

Effects of Creep:

Gradual Deformation:

Over time, the vessel can distort, leading to changes in shape and capacity.

Reduction in Material Properties:

Prolonged exposure can reduce the strength, ductility, and other material properties.

Microstructural Evolution:

The internal structure of the material can evolve, leading to the formation of voids, grain boundary sliding, or phase transformations.

Prevention Strategies:

Material Selection:

Use materials and alloys specifically designed for high-temperature applications with good creep resistance.

Operational Limits:

Set and adhere to temperature and stress limits to ensure they remain below the creep threshold.

Regular Monitoring:

Continuous monitoring of temperatures, stresses, and vessel shape can provide early signs of creep.

Scheduled Maintenance:

Periodic inspections and maintenance can identify early signs of deformation or material degradation.

Life Assessment Techniques:

Using advanced methodologies like rupture life predictions can provide insights into the remaining useful life of the pressure vessel.

Fatigue Failure

Unlike failures caused by a single, intense event or prolonged exposure to constant conditions, fatigue is an insidious form of failure resulting from repeated or fluctuating stresses. In pressure vessels, these repeated cycles can eventually lead to the initiation and propagation of cracks, even if the stresses are well below the material’s yield strength.

Definition and Characteristics:


Fatigue is the progressive and localized structural damage that occurs when a material is subjected to cyclic loading.


The process starts with the initiation of a microscopic crack, which then grows over many cycles, leading to eventual fracture. The fracture surface often has a distinct “beach mark” or “clamshell” appearance, indicative of the cyclic nature of the loading.

Causes of Fatigue Failure:

Fluctuating Stresses:

Repeated cycles of loading and unloading, even if individually benign, can collectively cause fatigue.

Material Defects:

Imperfections, inclusions, or other defects can act as initiation points for fatigue cracks.

Environmental Factors:

Corrosive environments can accelerate fatigue crack growth. This phenomenon, termed “corrosion fatigue,” can be especially detrimental.

Thermal Cycling:

Repeated heating and cooling can introduce stresses leading to thermal fatigue.

Effects of Fatigue:

Crack Initiation:

Microscopic cracks begin at stress concentration points or material defects.

Crack Propagation:

Over many cycles, these cracks grow, sometimes reaching critical sizes that compromise the vessel’s integrity.

Sudden Failure:

Even though the process starts slowly, the final fracture can be sudden and catastrophic.

Prevention Strategies:

Robust Design:

Design vessels to minimize stress concentrators like sharp corners or notches.

Material Selection:

Opt for materials with high fatigue resistance or those that have been treated for improved fatigue properties.

Operational Controls:

Maintain operational conditions to minimize fluctuations in loading or temperature.

Routine Inspections:

Regularly inspect for early signs of crack initiation, especially in known high-stress areas.

Surface Treatments:

Techniques like shot peening or surface coatings can enhance resistance to fatigue by introducing compressive residual stresses or protecting against environmental factors.

Corrosion-induced Failures

Corrosion is a silent destroyer, progressively weakening materials from within or from their surfaces, often unnoticed until it’s too late. For pressure vessels, corrosion can be particularly detrimental, jeopardizing their structural integrity and compromising their safety.

Definition and Characteristics:


It refers to the electrochemical process leading to the degradation of materials due to their interaction with their environment.


Corrosion can manifest as localized pitting, widespread surface corrosion, intergranular attacks, or even stress-corrosion cracking, among others.

Types and Causes of Corrosion-induced Failures:

General Corrosion:

A uniform attack on the metal surface leads to a reduction in wall thickness. Caused by exposure to aggressive environments.

Pitting Corrosion:

The localized form of corrosion, leads to small cavities or “pits” in the material. Often caused by chlorides or other aggressive ions.

Galvanic Corrosion:

Occurs when two dissimilar metals are in contact in a conductive solution, leading to accelerated corrosion of the less noble metal.

Intergranular Corrosion:

Attack along the grain boundaries of a material, often a result of impurities or heat treatment processes.

Stress-Corrosion Cracking (SCC):

A combination of tensile stress and a corrosive environment can lead to cracking.


Accelerated attack due to the relative motion of a corrosive fluid and the metal surface.

Effects of Corrosion:

Reduced Wall Thickness:

Can compromise the pressure-containing capability of the vessel.

Structural Weakness:

Localized corrosion forms like pitting can act as stress concentrators, leading to other forms of failure.


As corrosion progresses, small holes or cracks can form, leading to leaks.

Prevention Strategies:

Material Selection:

Opt for corrosion-resistant alloys or materials based on the expected operating environment.

Coatings and Linings:

Protective coatings or liners can serve as barriers against corrosive agents.

Cathodic Protection:

An electrochemical process to reduce the corrosion potential of a metal surface.

Regular Cleaning and Maintenance:

Removing deposits or aggressive substances can mitigate the risk.

Environmental Control:

Adjusting pH, oxygen content, or temperature can reduce the aggressiveness of the environment.

Design Considerations:

Ensure proper drainage, avoid crevices, and minimize areas where corrosive agents can accumulate.


In the world of pressure vessels, over-pressurization stands as one of the most direct and immediate threats. Pressure vessels are designed to contain specific pressures safely; however, when those limits are exceeded, the results can be catastrophic.

Definition and Characteristics:


This occurs when the internal pressure of a vessel surpasses its designed safe operational limit.


Rapid increase in internal pressure, often leading to deformation, bulging, or in extreme cases, explosive failure.

Causes of Over-pressurization:

System Malfunction:

Equipment failures, such as malfunctioning pressure relief devices or control systems.

Incorrect Operation:

Operator errors like introducing too much of a reactant or blocking a vent or outlet.

External Heat Source:

Exposure to an unanticipated external heat source leads to the rapid expansion of gases or fluids inside the vessel.

Exothermic Reactions:

Uncontrolled chemical reactions within the vessel release large amounts of heat and gas.

Blocked Outlets:

A blockage can cause a buildup of pressure if gases or fluids cannot be released.

Effects of Over-pressurization:

Vessel Deformation:

The vessel may bulge or deform, compromising its structural integrity.

Material Fatigue:

Repeated over-pressurization events can lead to material fatigue and eventual failure.

Explosive Rupture:

In extreme cases, the vessel can rupture explosively, posing grave safety risks and potential damage to nearby infrastructure.

Prevention Strategies:

Pressure Relief Devices:

Install and maintain safety valves or rupture disks to release pressure when it exceeds safe limits.

Monitoring and Alarms:

Utilize pressure gauges and sensors connected to alarm systems to alert operators of dangerous pressure levels.

Operator Training:

Ensure that those handling the equipment are well-trained in operational procedures and emergency responses.

Regular Maintenance and Inspections:

Periodic checks to ensure that all components, especially safety devices, are in optimal condition.

Design Considerations:

Design vessels with a safety margin above the anticipated operational pressures, and ensure they meet relevant standards and codes.

Safety Protocols:

Develop and implement protocols for regular system checks and emergency shutdown procedures.

Importance of Regular Inspection and Maintenance

Pressure vessels play a pivotal role in numerous industries, from petrochemical and power generation to pharmaceuticals and food processing. As such, their operational integrity and safety are paramount. Regular inspection and maintenance serve as the frontline defense against potential failures, ensuring that these critical components function effectively and safely throughout their lifespan.

Why Regular Inspection is Crucial:

Early Detection of Issues:

Many vessel failures begin as minor issues, detectable only upon close inspection. Early detection can prevent a minor problem from escalating into a major disaster.

Safety Compliance: 

Regulatory bodies often mandate periodic inspections to ensure compliance with safety standards and operational guidelines.

Optimal Performance: 

Regular checks ensure that the vessel operates at peak efficiency, reducing unwanted downtime or inefficiencies.

Lifespan Extension: 

Detecting and rectifying issues can extend the vessel’s operational life, offering a better return on investment.

Maintenance: Beyond Just Inspection:

Restorative Action: 

While inspection identifies potential issues, maintenance acts to correct them, restoring the vessel’s condition.

Preventive Measures: 

Routine maintenance, like cleaning, lubrication, or replacing worn components, can prevent issues from arising in the first place.

Ensuring Reliability:

Regular maintenance reduces the risk of unexpected breakdowns, ensuring continuous and reliable operations.

Cost Savings:

Preventive maintenance can often avert costly repairs or replacements in the future.

Key Areas of Focus during Inspection and Maintenance:

Wall Thickness:

Checking for thinning or erosion due to corrosion or wear.

Weld Inspections: 

Ensuring that welds remain solid and free from cracks or defects.

Safety Components:

Verifying the operational integrity of safety devices like pressure relief valves.

Internal Examination:

Looking for signs of corrosion, deposition, or material degradation inside the vessel.

Operational Parameters:

Checking temperature, pressure, and other parameters to ensure they are within safe and optimal ranges.

Implementation Strategies:

Scheduled Checks: 

Establish and adhere to a regular inspection and maintenance schedule, based on manufacturer recommendations and operational demands.


Maintain meticulous records of all inspections and maintenance activities for accountability and future reference.


Ensure that inspection and maintenance crews are adequately trained, equipped, and updated on the latest techniques and standards.

Feedback Loop:

Create a system where issues identified during inspection inform maintenance practices, and vice versa.

Pressure vessels, the workhorses of numerous industries, play a critical role in the safe containment and transport of fluids under pressure. Understanding the various types of failures these vessels can experience is essential to ensure their longevity, safety, and operational efficiency. In this comprehensive exploration, we’ve delved into the different failure modes of pressure vessels, shedding light on their causes, effects, and prevention strategies.
From the sudden and explosive nature of brittle fractures to the more predictable deformation associated with ductile fractures, we’ve examined how materials respond to different types of loading and environmental conditions. Creep failure, often occurring in high-temperature environments, requires a unique set of precautions to prevent the gradual deformation and degradation of materials over time. Fatigue failure, the result of repeated stress cycles, reminds us of the importance of monitoring and maintenance to prevent the slow initiation and propagation of cracks.
Corrosion-induced failures serve as a reminder of the insidious nature of chemical reactions with materials, emphasizing the need for proper material selection, coatings, and monitoring. Finally, the immediate threat of over-pressurization underscores the importance of well-maintained safety systems, operator training, and adherence to operational limits.
However, our exploration didn’t stop at identifying failure modes; we also emphasized the critical role of regular inspection and maintenance. Through routine checks, early detection of issues, and timely corrective actions, the lifespan and safety of pressure vessels can be significantly extended.
In conclusion, the safe and efficient operation of pressure vessels requires a multifaceted approach. It involves not only the initial selection of materials and design but also ongoing vigilance, meticulous inspection, and proactive maintenance. With these practices firmly in place, pressure vessels can continue to serve as reliable and safe components in the diverse industries that depend on them.


At Red River, we understand the critical role that pressure vessels play in your industry. Whether you’re looking to design, manufacture, inspect, or maintain pressure vessels, we’ve got you covered. With our expertise in the field, we can help you ensure the safety, longevity, and efficiency of your pressure vessels.
Contact Red River today for:

Pressure Vessel Design: 

Our experienced team can help you design pressure vessels that meet your specific requirements and adhere to industry standards.

Manufacturing Excellence:

We employ cutting-edge manufacturing techniques and quality materials to create pressure vessels that stand the test of time.

Thorough Inspections: 

Trust us to conduct thorough inspections of your pressure vessels, identifying potential issues before they become critical.

Proactive Maintenance:

 Our maintenance services are designed to extend the lifespan of your pressure vessels and prevent costly downtime.

Safety Assurance:

 With our commitment to safety and compliance, you can have peace of mind that your pressure vessels are in capable hands.


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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