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Fracture Mechanics


2013 12


Applications of Fracture Mechanics in Engineering
(Andrs Gonzlez)
College of electrical and mechanical engineering
Abstract: This report gives a general introduction to the application of fracture mechanics
in two main engineering fields: the aviation engineering and the railway
engineering. After a short review of relevant contributions along history, there
will be a summary of the main applications of fracture mechanics in design and
maintenance of airplanes and railways.
Key words: Fracture mechanics, Aviation, Applications, Railway
As Gordon [1] said in 1970 The worst sin in an engineering material is not the lack of
strength, or the lack of stiffness, desirable as they are, but the lack of tenacity. This means the
absence of resistance to crack propagation. One of the main requirements for a structure is
not to fail while being used. Thanks to this basic concept, monumental structures like the
Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt or the Roman Coliseum are still standing.
However, many design theories in engineering have been developed as a result of catastrophic
failures. A famous example of this affirmation is the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
This led to a more exhaustive study of the effects of resonance in structures.
A failure can take a train or an airplane out of service, but can also imply huge
economic and human losses. The explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986 [2]
caused the death of the astronauts, millions of dollars invested in the research and
development of the aircraft were lost, and the credibility of the US space program was put in
doubt. Economic studies held in the U.S. during the 1970s [3] have shown that research and
application of fracture mechanics could reduce the annual cost of fractures in 24% (US$28
Since the World War II, when the study of fracture mechanics appeared, it has helped
to reduce some of the dangers caused by the use of new and unknown materials and complex
designs. However, efforts must be done to promote the application of these concepts as
common engineering practices.

The first statements about fracture mechanics can be found in Leonardo da Vincis
experiments about strength of steel wires. Some years later, Galileo Galilei was the first to
formulate that the fracture strength of a bar under tension stress is proportional to its
transversal area and independent of its length [4].

Many years passed before another relevant discovery in this field was done. In 1920,
Alan Griffith, in his PhD thesis for Cambridge University, proposed the relationship between
cracks in materials and strength. He stated that the real tensile strength of brittle materials is
significantly lower than the strength predicted by the theory because of presence of cracks in
the material. [5]
As said before, many scientific advances are the result of important catastrophes.
Griffiths theory remained as academic information until World War II, when it gave an
important clue to the study of the failure of Liberty ships. A fast ship building technique was
developed during the WWII, so the U.S. could supply cargo ships to the British army quickly.
Instead of using a riveted hull like it was used in that time, these ships were all-welded. As a
result of this new technique, only 2700 ships were built, but 400 of them developed fractures
in the hull and 10 ships broke completely in two. [3] Fig. 1 shows one of the ships completely
broken; some of them didnt even touch the water, failed while in construction.

Figure 1. Rupture of the oil tanker Schenectady. [2]
This problem was studied by the Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, D.C.), led
by Dr. G. R. Irwin. Based in Griffiths proposal, Irwin developed the energy release rate
concept in 1957. [6] He proposed the stress intensity factor k as a parameter for the intensity
of the stress near the tip of the crack. Many other studies were done by this laboratory and the
field research of fracture mechanics was born.
Since then, new improvements have been done to Irwins research. In 1968 a new
parameter was developed to characterize nonlinear materials behavior. This allowed the
application of fracture mechanics to the analysis of nuclear pressure vessels and big gas
turbines. It was not possible before due to the high toughness of the steel used to build these
Actually, the finite elements analysis, through the use of computers and sophisticated
software, has allowed the use of more sophisticated models for materials behavior and
analysis of complex geometries and loads, impossible to do using simple methods. Composite
materials and nanostructures are good examples of this.

Nowadays the most impressive accidents have happened in bridges, oil platforms,
pressure vessels, turbines and airplanes. Numerous aeronautic failures related to
undercarriage, like the one shown in Fig. 2, windows shape and engines have been attributed
to fatigue and corrosion under tensile stress. Other failures, like in the F-111 were deduced to
be caused by preexisting cracks.

Figure 2. Failure in an airplane undercarriage caused by the fracture of the axis. [2]
In 1956, the Aircraft Structural Integrity Program in the USA [7] developed the so
called Safe Life philosophy, which intended to improve the aircraft design taking into
consideration the effects of cyclic loading on airframes. High safety factors and elevated
service lives were supposed to be ensured.
But this philosophy did not take into account that high strength steel is used in many
critical parts of aircraft. This steel can fracture under load if there are small defects or cracks
in the material, even relatively small ones. The result: some Safe Life designed airplanes,
like the F111 [7], had catastrophic failures. For this reason, and searching for an explanation,
fracture mechanics became used in aircraft applications.
Wanhill, Molent and Barter [8] divide the application of fracture mechanics in two
main fields: the fatigue crack growth (FCG) and fracture toughness. Both may be considered
for service failures, component and full-scale tests, and specimen tests.
Fatigue crack growth allows different types of analyses:
Life to the critical crack size from an initial crack size
Life to the critical crack size from the minimum reliably detectable crack size
Feasibility of replacement or repair for remaining service life

Effect of aircraft usage severity on life
This use is related to maintenance of aircrafts and uses statistics tools to analyze the
periodicity of service and feasibility of repairs. The Fig. 3 displays a curve where the crack
size is shown as a function of the number of flights. This way, maintenance departments can
schedule service inspections before cracks appear.

Figure 3. Curve of crack growth from initial crack size. Estimation between flight numbers and crack
size can be done to determine service timing. [8]
The inspections will also bring information about new cracks, or the situation of old
ones. Using fracture mechanics analysis, engineers can decide whether to repair or to replace
the damaged component.
Fracture toughness, on the other hand, estimates the maximum permissible crack size.
This is not necessarily the critical crack size, but the maximum size after which the
component should be replaced or repaired.
Fracture mechanics has become an important tool for aircraft industry due to the
economic aspect. Lighter materials mean less fuel will be used. Extended service periods
mean airplanes will be out of service less frequently. And, of course, safer airplanes mean
fewer accidents and consequent monetary impact. It is not surprising that aircraft companies
invest in engineering all around the world.

Railways have been the most important mean of transportation for people and goods
since its early days. Nevertheless, it has not been exempt from failures like breaking axles,
wheels and rails or exploding vessels. These experiences have stimulated scientists to research

about fatigue and material testing. Higher speeds and the ability to carry higher loads are the
goals of modern designers; this presents a challenge in terms of safety, materials and
Railway axles are commonly designed to withstand a service life of more than 30
years [9]. To ensure this service life, frequent inspections must be done. Non-destructive
testing has been, for more than 60 years [10], the most used tool to control the growth and
size of cracks. In UK, axles must be inspected every 200 days of service using ultrasound and
magnetic particles. Japan has also used ultrasound for inspection to a low level.
The analysis of the inspection results using the fracture mechanics forms the damage
tolerance concept. Zerbst, Mdler and Hintze [10] propose that if the initial crack shape and
size are known, simulations can be done to determine the critical size for component failure.
This way, the residual lifetime can be determined, and inspection intervals or demands for
non-destructive testing can be established using statistics tools and charts like the one shown
in Fig. 4.

Figure 4. Probability of detection versus crack size curve. It shows the probability to find a crack in the axle
depending on the crack size and the non-destructive test used [10]
Railway wheels are constantly under cyclic thermal loads. Temperature during braking
can go up to 540 C [10] and then rail chilling causes a rapid cooling. This causes not only
thermal load fatigue but also residual stresses and changes in the crystalline structure of the
steel. Martensite microstructure is mostly removed by wear, but small cracks may extend due
to fatigue and cause the complete failure of wheels, as shown in Fig. 5.

Figure 5. Detachment on a railway wheel caused by fatigue. [11]
Contribution of fracture mechanics have been mainly using numerical algorithms
based on finite elements or boundary elements. Numerical finite element calculations can be
carried out to analyze stress distributions. Analysis of the information using fracture
mechanics have shown that fracture occurred only in wheels with fracture toughness lower
than a certain value. This finding was included in European and American standards, which
require a minimum toughness to be guaranteed.
The development of faster trains was restricted by technical limitations. To reach
higher speeds, traction power was increased, but it was seriously damaging the rails and its
conservation was becoming more expensive each day. Fracture mechanics has given many
answers to the development of new and better rails.
Loading situation of railways is complex to analyze because it is composed by two
different components: axle loads and its dynamic effects, but also by the thermal stresses
caused by friction between wheel and rail. Like in the study of wheels, the use of finite
element analysis has helped to improve the profile of the rails and the materials.
Again, non-destructive tests are used to monitor the crack size and growth during
periodical inspections. Ultrasound is used not only for crack detection, but also for residual
stress measurement. However, due to some limitations of this technology, it cannot detect
cracks growing within an inclined angle. For this reason, alternative methods like the Eddy
current method are also used.
As said above, and for the same reasons as in aircraft engineering case, pursue of
faster and better machines while the decrease in the expenses has made fracture mechanics a
very important tool for railway design.


Even with the advanced quality control procedures, traditional design criteria of
safety factor or reliability index must be complimented with the knowledge of fracture
mechanics. Ideal materials dont exist, so the design process must always consider the
presence of discontinuities or defects in the materials.
Fracture mechanics has proven to give a realistic approach to the actual condition and
strength of materials. The design based in the fracture mechanics theory has made possible the
development of safer, bigger and lighter aircrafts; fracture of ships has decreased significantly
and railway industry has diminished components failures while developing even faster trains.
The pending task for the engineering community is to expand the use of these
concepts to more fields while promoting the research of fractures behavior in high end
materials and complex structures.


[1] J. Gordon, The New Science of Strong Materials, London: Penguin Books, 1970.
[2] J. L. Arana and J. J. Gonzlez, Mecnica de fractura, Bilbao: Servicio Editorial de la Universidad del
Pas Vasco, 2002.
[3] T. L. Anderson, Fracture Mechanics. Fundamentals and Applications, Florida: CRC Press, 2005.
[4] G. Galilei, Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche Sopra due Nuove Sciebze, Leiden: Elsevini, 1638.
[5] A. A. Griffith, "The Phenomenon of Rupture," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol.
221, pp. 163-198, 1920.
[6] G. R. Irwin, "Relation of Stress Near a Crack to the Crack Extension Force," in Proceedings of the 9th
International Congress of Applied Mechanics, London, 1957.
[7] G. Redmond, "From 'Safe Life' to Fracture Mechanics - F111 Aircraft Cold Temperature Proof Testing
at RAAF Amberley.," in 10th Asia-Pacific Conference on Non-Destructive Testing, Brisbane, 2001.
[8] R. Wanhill, L. Molent and S. A. Barter, "Fracture mechanics in aircraft failure analysis: Uses and
limitations," Engineering Failure Analysis, vol. 35, pp. 33-35, 2012.
[9] U. Zerbst, S. Beretta, G. Khler, A. Lawton, M. Vormwald, H. T. Beier, C. Klinger, I. Cerny, J. Rudlin,
T. Heckel and D. Klingbeil, "Safe life and damage tolerance aspects of railway axles - A review,"
Engineering Fracture Mechanics, vol. 98, pp. 214-271, 2013.
[10] U. Zerbst, K. Mdler and H. Hintze, "Fracture mechanics in railway applications - an overview,"
Engineering Fracture Mechanics, vol. 72, no. 2, pp. 163-194, 2005.
[11] A. Herreros Garrido, "Estudio de la defectologa en ruedas ferroviarias," Universidad Carlos III de
Madrid, Madrid, 2010.
[12] A. Balankin, "Mecnica de la fractura: pasado, presente y futuro," in Quinto Congreso Nacional de
Ingeniera Electromecnica y de Sistemas, Mxico D.F., 2000.