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Scanning Electron Microscope Fractography in

Failure Analysis of Steels
R. Wouters and L. Froyen
Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, B-3001
Leuven, Belgium

For many failure cases, macroscopic examination of the fracture surface permits discrimi-
nation of fatigue fractures from overload fractures. For clarifyingfatiguejructtlues, the practi-
cal significance of microfractography is limited to an investigation of the crack initiation ar-
eas. Scanning electron microscopy is successfully used in tracing local material abnormalities
that act as fatigue crack initiators. The task for the scanning electron microscope, however,
is much more substantial in failure analysis of overloadfractures, especially for steels. By re-
vealing specific fractographic characteristics, complemented by information about the ma-
terial and the loading conditions, scanning electron microscopy provides a strong indica-
tion of the probable cause of failure. A complete dimplefiacture is indicative of acceptable
bulk material properties; overloading, by subdimensioning or excessive external loading,
has to be verified. The presence of cleavagefructure makes the material properties question-
able if external conditions causing embrittlement are absent. Intergranular brittlefracture re-
quires verification of grain-boundary weakening conditions-a sensitized structure,
whether or not combined with a local stress state or a specific environment. The role of
scanning electron microscopy in failure analysis is illustrated by case histories of the afore-
mentioned fracture types. 0 Elsevier Science Inc., 1996

INTRODUCTION and exclusive role of the scanning electron

microscope (SEM).
Failure analysis basically tries to correlate
failure appearance with failure cause. How-
ever, this correlation is rarely unambigu- INVESTIGATION OF FATIGUE FRACTURE
ous. Fractography atlases and failure analy- BY SCANNING ELECTRON MICROSCOPY
sis handbooks, which precisely describe the
relation between cause and appearance, can In most cases, fatigue failures can be easily
be used for solving failure problems [l-5]. and correctly identified from macrofracto-
However, their accessibility is sometimes graphical features. The presence of a well-
limited because they are based on one-way defined, flat fracture area with a clear
classifications of all possible failure mecha- beach-mark pattern and a sharp transition
nisms. An efficient use of these sources to the final fracture part is often sufficient
therefore requires a minimal presumption for fatigue identification. Moreover, the mac-
about the possible failure cause. The aim of roscopic appearance of the fatigue fracture
this contribution is to supply this first indi- surfaces can yield information about load-
cation of probable cause of failure in steels, ing conditions and stress state [l]. How-
based solely on the observation of primary ever, questionable cases do occur; thin sec-
microfractographic features, and thereby to tioned fractures, for instance, as well as flat
demonstrate, for certain cases, the specific fracture surfaces with no plastic deforma-
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358 R. Wouters and L. Froyen

tion and with absence of any overload frac- of the fracture surface shown in Fig. 2(a)
ture part, can be ambiguous and require in- (flat and without any macroscopic plastic
vestigation with the SEM for confirmation deformation), as well as the previous his-
or exclusion of a suspected fracture mecha- tory of similar components that showed
nism. Examples are shown in Figures 1 and embrittlement due to careless heat treat-
2. At the occasion of an unexpected failure ment, required an investigation with the
of the shear pin shown in Fig. l(a), some SEM. Fatigue characteristics were observed
doubts did arise about its proper function- all over the fracture surface [see Fig. 2(b)].
ing; a possible rupture of the pin by fatigue This failure mechanism was explained by
instead of overload, for which it was de- an annealing treatment of the component,
signed, had to be checked. Scanning elec- which overcame the embrittlement prob-
tron microscopy cleared up the situation: a lems but lowered the fatigue resistance.
complete dimple shear fracture was ob- In an analysis of unambiguous fatigue
served and, therefore, any fatigue mecha- fractures, the SEM can be used to trace the
nism could be excluded. initiation areas. Fatigue cracks starting
The failure shown in Fig. 2 concerns a from discrete notches not related to a geo-
broken component from a high-pressure metrical origin are suspected of being
pump, made from a hardenable chromium
stainless steel. The ambiguous appearance



FIG. 2. Fracture surface (a) and fractograph (b) of a
part from a high-pressure pump (hardenable chro-
(b) mium stainless steel: 0.2% C, 17% Cr, 2% Ni). Fatigue
FIG. 1. Fracture surface (a) and fractograph (b) of a striations can be observed (b); they indicate the crack
broken shear pin; shear dimples. propagation direction (see arrow).
SEM Fractograpky in Failure Analysis

caused by a local material defect. For dis-

playing the typical microfractographic fea-
tures of several material defects, such as
porosity, inclusions, material overlaps, sur-
face defects, and so forth, SEM fractogra-
phy is an excellent technique; it is also use-
ful because of its microanalytical possibilities.
Figure 3 shows, for example, casting poros-
ity that started a fatigue crack. Structure-
related material defects require, in most
cases, metallographical assistance for their
identification or clarification. The intergran-
ular cracks shown in Fig. 4, for example, FIG. 4. Quench crack in the initiation area of the frac-
were found in the initiation areas of the frac- ture surface of a shaft (17 CrNiMo 6 casehardened
ture surface of a shaft. The shaft was bro-
ken in a section transition area and the in-
tergranular cracks were identified as quench
dicative of acceptable bulk material proper-
cracks caused by a careless masking proce-
ties. If the dimple structure is pure and
dure before carburizing.
covers the whole fracture surface, over-
loading either by subdimensioning or by
excessive external loading is to be expected.
The dimple characteristics provide, in some
cases, relevant information concerning the
material (e.g., an excessive inclusion con-
tent, as in Fig. 5) or the loading mode (e.g.,
In the absence of fatigue conditions, the
as in Fig. 6). The overloaded steel screws
fracture surface of a mechanically loaded
shown in Fig. 6 fractured along the first
component appears as a dimple structure,
thread near the screw head. The different
as cleavage or quasi-cleavage, as intergran-
orientations of the dimples in the core [Fig.
ular, or as a mixture of these characteristics.
6(a)] and in the outer case [Fig. 6(b)] indi-
cate torsional rather than tensile loading.
From this analysis, it was concluded that
Because a pure dimple structure is a trans- the screw failed during tightening and not
granular mode of ductile fracture, it is in- during service.

FIG. 3. Shrinkage porosity in a steel casting (G-X 12 Cr FIG. 5. Fractograph of an overloaded tool steel con-
14) that initiated fatigue fracture. taining manganese sulfide stringers.
360 X. Wouters and L. Froyen

(a) (a)

(b) (b)
FIG. 7. Fractograph (a) and microstructure (b) of a
FIG. 6. Fractographs of overloaded steel (0.2% C)
12% Cr martensitic steel component with intergranu-
screws: normal dimples in the core (a) and shear dim-
lar dimple fracture characteristics (a), caused by a tem-
ples in the case (b).
pered martensite microstructure with carbide string-
ers along the prior austenite grain boundaries (b).

An exception to the usual transgranular

dimple structure is the intergranular dim- form, frequently together with dimples) on
ple variant. It is rarely found because it is broken steel components indicates brittle
indicative of a specific metallographic struc- behavior. This can be caused either by ex-
ture. An example is shown in Fig. 7. A 12% ternal conditions (low temperature, impact
Cr martensitic steel failed prematurely be- loading, presence of notches) or by an unfa-
cause of an intergranular dimple fracture vorable material condition, often caused by
[Fig. 7(a)] due to unfavorable grain-bound- an inadequate heat treatment. The metallo-
ary precipitation: carbide strings were graphic structure, as a translation of the
formed along the large prior austenite heat treatment state of the material, must
grain boundaries during tempering [Fig. be checked. A typical example is the insuf-
7(b)]. ficient tempering of hardenable steels (Fig. 8).
Other unfavorable structural characteris-
tics are a large grain size, the presence of an
excessive amount of inclusions of unfavor-
able orientation, and certain kinds of pre-
The presence of cleavage or quasi-cleavage cipitates. An example, shown in Fig. 9, is a
fracture characteristics (pure or in mixed thin-walled hollow shaft that failed be-
SEM Fvactograpky in Failure Analysis 361

(a) (a)

(b) (b)
FIG. 8. Fractograph (a) and microstructure (b) of a case- FIG. 9. Fractograph (a) and microstructure (b) of a
hardened shaft (2OCrMo5 steel); partially brittle fracture hollow shaft (0.15% carbon steel), showing cleavage
(quasi-cleavage) (a) due to insufficient tempering (b). fracture (a) due to the presence of needle-shaped iron
nitrides in a ferrite-pearlite structure (b).

cause of cleavage fracture due to the pres-

specific environment, and stress. The task
ence of needle-shaped iron nitrides all over
of the SEM is to detect the intergranular
the wall thickness. This was caused by an
fracture and to demarcate the extent of the
incorrect steel selection; a 0.15% carbon
intergranular part in the whole fracture
steel without Al or Cr addition was used
surface, because these data can provide in-
for nitriding.
formation about the role of the factors that
In the case of acceptable material proper-
cause weakening.
ties, the presence or the influence of exter-
A complete intergranular rupture under
nal brittleness enhancers, such as impact
a mechanical load is rather rare and points
loading, temperature, or a multiaxial stress
in most cases to an undesirable microstruc-
state should be checked.
ture of the bulk material. Examples are
overheating, temper embrittlement, and so
forth. In Fig. 10(a), a broken crush roller
shows complete intergranular fracture, with
In general, intergranular fracture implies grains that are visible to the naked eye. From
grain-boundary weakening. This weaken- the metallographic structure [Fig. 10(b)], it
ing can be caused by one or a combination is clear that the component was over-
of three factors: metallographic structure, heated; large grains containing pearlite in a
362 R. Wouters and L. Froyen

FIG. 11. Overload fracture of a casehardened compo-

nent with a sharp transition between an intergranular
(a) broken carburized case and the dimple core.

loaded, casehardened component is shown

in Fig. 11.
The appearance of limited local inter-
granular areas on a fracture surface is in-
dicative of a sensitized structure that has
been exposed to a local stress state or an ag-
gressive environment or both. Examples
are quench cracks, grinding cracks, stress
corrosion cracking, liquid metal embrittle-
ment, and knife-line attack. These inter-
granular cracks are often identified as initi-
(b) ation sites either for fatigue ruptures,
FIG. 10. Fracture surface (a) and microstructure (b) of because they act as notches, or for overload
a broken crush roller (0.66% carbon steel), showing (a) fractures, because they reduce the loaded
complete intergranular fracture caused by overheat- cross section. The added value of the SEM
ing and (b) large grains containing pearlite with a fer- derives from its capacity to reveal specific
rite network.
characteristics such as grain decohesion,
crack branching, crows-foot marks, or
ferrite network (the material was a hypoeu- chemical attack and from its capacity to
tectoid steel with 0.66% carbon). provide microanalytical information con-
Small sectioned components that have cerning corroding agents or an unfavorable
been exposed to a specific environment structure (examples are shown in Figs.
sometimes show an intergranular fracture 12-14).
over the whole fracture surface. A well- The intergranular fracture shown in Fig.
known example is the galvanized screw 12(a) is a broken martensitic stainless steel
that fails owing to hydrogen embrittlement. component that had been exposed to a cor-
A fracture surface with a well-defined inter- rosive water environment containing chlo-
granular border is a normal pattern for sur- ride and sulfates at room temperature. The
face-treated steels by carburization both for grain boundaries were found to contain
overload and for fatigue failures. The sharp large carbides [Fig. 12(a)] and further met-
transition between the intergranular bro- allographic examination revealed an inter-
ken case and the dimple core of an over- granular attack of the sensitized structure
SEM Fractography in Failure Analysis 363

(a) FIG. 13. Corroded intergranular fracture area of a

martensitic stainless steel component attacked by
stress corrosion cracking.


Microfractography provides a first indica-

tion of causes of failure in broken steel
parts. Scanning electron microscopy has
proved to be, as evidenced by the examples
presented herein, a valuable instrument for
fracture failure analysis. In summary, the
role of scanning electron microscopy is (1)
(b) to clarify fatigue initiation if not related to
geometrical notches and (2) to distinguish
FIG. 12. Intergranular fracture area (a) and scanning
among dimple, cleavage, and intergranular
electron micrograph of a metallographic section (b) of
a broken martensitic stainless steel component with fracture when dealing with overload cases.
chromium-rich precipitates located on the grains [see Each of the fracture types gives specific in-
arrows on (a)]. In metallographic section (b), inter- dications about the probable cause of frac-
granular attack along the chromium-rich precipitates ture of the steel part.
can be observed.

at locations of maximum stress. In Fig.

12(b), the intergranular attack along the
chromium carbides is shown in a metallo-
graphic section. This case is an illustration
of the combination of all three factors:
stress, a sensitized microstructure, and to a
minor extent the environment, leading to
intergranular cracking. Figure 13 shows a
corroded intergranular fracture area of a
martensitic stainless steel component. In
this case, an overload fracture was induced
by stress corrosion cracks that reduced the
effective section of the component. Figure
14 shows an example of intergranular frac- FIG. 14. Intergranular fracture due to a hydrogen em-
ture by hydrogen embrittlement: the mate- brittlement; note the grain decohesion and the crows-
rial is a casehardened steel. foot marks on the grains.
364 R. Wouters and L. Froyen

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Carl Hanser Verlag, Mtinchen (1982).
1. Failure analysis and prevention, in Metals Hand- 4. Systematische Beurteilung technischer Schadens-
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Metals Park, OH, p. 111 (1986). 5. R. Mitsche, ua., Anwendung des Rasterelektronen-
2. Fractography, in Metals Handbook, 9th Ed. Vol. 12, mikroskopes bei Eisen- und Stahlwerkstoffen, Ra-
American Society for Metals, Metals Park, OH dex Rundschau, Montanuniversitlt Leoben (1978).
3. L. Engel, and H. Klingele, Rasterelektronenmik- Received February 1996.364