Hydrogen Embrittlement – Part 1
High Strength Steels Achilles Heel
Sudden brittle fracture in high strength steels resulting from hydrogen embrittlement represents an extremely dangerous phenomenon to industry, particularly since it is usually the result of factors that occur during the manufacturing process.
Hydrogen embrittlement reduces ductility, often to the point where metals behave like ceramics. Consequently, fatigue strength and fracture toughness are also dramatically reduced. Brittle fracture occurs without warning and can be immediate, within hours of manufacture, or after years in service. Hydrogen embrittlement failures have even been observed in unassembled parts in inventory, a phenomenon known as “shelf popping”.
Generally, the higher the strength of the steel, the more at risk it is to hydrogen embrittlement and the more vulnerable it is to lower levels of hydrogen. Embrittlement at levels of 10 parts per million and less are not uncommon. Some research suggests this relationship is exponential. In other words, doubling the strength, quadruples the susceptibility to hydrogen embrittlement.
Although hydrogen embrittlement occurs in many different metal alloys, high strength steel appears to be the most sensitive, is the most widely used and accounts for the largest number of hydrogen embrittlement failures. This article offers an overview on hydrogen embrittlement as it relates to high strength steels only, though details of the phenomenon generally apply to other susceptible metals.
In the late 1940’s a revolution was underway in aviation. Jet propulsion was rapidly replacing the old piston engine driven propeller technology and aircraft performance began to exceed levels that had been considered physically impossible just ten years earlier. Weight reduction and more power propelling airframes that could withstand higher loading were critical to these improvements. This resulted in demands for higher strength alloys from which smaller, lighter and stronger components could be made.
Low alloy steels such as 4130 had been used in aviation in the past. However, these materials were typically used in the normalized heat treated condition, at tensile strengths in the 90,000 to 120,000 psi range – well below levels susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement. In response to demands for more strength, “radical” heat treatments to tensile strengths approaching 200,000 psi were applied to 4130 and other “anemic” low alloy steels. Some of the first hydrogen embrittlement failures appeared, though they weren’t initially recognized as such.
Enhanced low alloy steels, such as 4140 and 4340 were used in response to these failures, and the cycle was repeated, with the demand for more performance from smaller components resulting in processing to ever higher strength levels.
One of the unfortunate consequences of increasing the strength of low alloy steels is a corresponding reduction in corrosion resistance. To combat increased corrosion in service, a variety of electroplated coatings, such as chromium, nickel and cadmium, were applied. With a new potent source of hydrogen now available from the plating baths used in these processes, a dramatic increase in hydrogen embrittlement failures occurred in both the aerospace industry and in other industries to which the new materials technology had filtered down.
Part 2 in this series will discuss this phenomenon from a metallurgical perspective – what actually occurs, on a microscopic scale, that causes hydrogen embrittlement?
In Part 3, we will discuss the conditions that render steels susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement, and how to prevent its occurrence in both the manufacturing and service environments.
Part 4 will briefly discuss the analysis of hydrogen embrittlement failures and illustrate several “infamous” and unusual failures.