Pressure Vessel Failures: Causes and Prevention Techniques

Pressure vessels are critical components used in various industries, including oil and gas, chemical, aerospace, and energy, among others. These vessels are designed to hold gasses or liquids at pressures significantly higher than the ambient pressure. 

However, pressure vessel failures can lead to disastrous consequences, including leaks, ruptures, fires, and explosions, posing serious risks to human safety and the environment. 

This article delves into the common causes of pressure vessel failures and explores effective prevention techniques to ensure safe and reliable operations in Australia and beyond.

Common Causes of Pressure Vessel Failures

Pressure vessels can fail instantly due to various factors. Buckling occurs when the vessel’s walls deform and buckle under the applied loads, leading to a loss of structural integrity. 

Overload, on the other hand, occurs when the vessel is subjected to pressures beyond its designed capacity, resulting in catastrophic failure. Fast fracture refers to sudden and complete vessel rupture due to excessive stress concentrations or material defects.

Long-term failures occur over the vessel’s service life and are often insidious in nature. Fatigue failure arises from repeated loading and unloading cycles, causing cracks to propagate and eventually lead to vessel failure. Corrosion, a common issue in aggressive environments, weakens the vessel walls and compromises their integrity.¬†

Creep is the gradual deformation of materials under constant stress and elevated temperatures. Stress corrosion cracking occurs when a combination of tensile stress and corrosion leads to crack propagation. Hydrogen embrittlement, caused by the ingress of hydrogen into the metal structure, reduces the vessel’s ductility and increases the risk of failure.

Examining real-world case studies of pressure vessel failures provides valuable insights into the potential risks and consequences. Notable examples, such as industrial accidents or transport incidents, highlight the importance of implementing preventive measures and ensuring compliance with safety regulations.

Preventive Measures During Design and Fabrication

1). Compliance with Recognized Codes and Standards

Adhering to established Codes and Standards is crucial in pressure vessel design and fabrication. These guidelines provide detailed requirements for material selection, fabrication processes, testing, and inspection. 

Post-weld heat-treatment and proof testing are often mandatory to ensure the vessel’s structural integrity. Qualification of welders and welding procedures is critical for producing high-quality welds that can withstand pressure and mechanical loads.

2). Stress Relief of Thick Sections

Stress relief involves applying heat to reduce residual stresses in thick vessel sections. This process enhances the vessel’s stability, reduces the risk of stress-induced failures, and ensures uniform material properties throughout the structure.

3). Minimisation of Defects During Fabrication

Qualified welders and inspection techniques play a vital role in minimizing defects during fabrication. Defects such as weld discontinuities, porosity, or inclusions can significantly weaken the vessel and make it susceptible to failure.

4). The Significance of Proof Testing

Proof testing is a traditional method of verifying the vessel’s safety by pressurizing it beyond its maximum service stress. If the vessel successfully withstands this test without failure, it provides confidence in its ability to perform safely during normal operation.

 Engineering Critical Assessment (ECA)

Engineering Critical Assessment (ECA) evaluates the safety of pressure vessels by analyzing the effects of cracks or flaws on their structural integrity. Utilizing fracture mechanics principles, ECA assesses whether given flaws can lead to brittle fracture, fatigue failure, creep, or plastic collapse under specific loading conditions.

ECA is applied at various stages of a pressure vessel’s life cycle. During the design phase, it aids in selecting appropriate welding procedures and inspection techniques. During fabrication, ECA assesses the significance of known defects that may not meet fabrication Codes. In operation, ECA assists in evaluating flaws discovered during service, making decisions on whether they can safely remain, require repair, or necessitate down-rating of operating conditions.

In situations where standard ECA cannot guarantee vessel safety, more advanced techniques such as probabilistic analysis, crack arrest, or leak before break may be considered. These approaches provide a comprehensive understanding of the vessel’s performance and potential failure modes.

Fatigue Improvement Techniques

To prevent fatigue failure, pressure vessel components can be designed and analyzed using fatigue design methods. ECA can also be employed for flaws identified during service, aiding in fatigue life assessment and determining appropriate measures to avoid crack growth.

Fatigue life can be improved by removing tiny non-metallic intrusions from weld toes through grinding and inducing local compression by peening. These techniques minimize stress concentrations and enhance the vessel’s fatigue resistance.

The Role of Non-Destructive Testing (NDT)

Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) is crucial for the early detection of flaws or defects in pressure vessels. Common NDT methods include Ultrasonic Testing (UT) and Magnetic Particle Inspection (MPI) for identifying surface and subsurface cracks, Radiographic Testing (RT) for internal flaw detection, and Liquid Penetrant Testing (PT) for identifying surface discontinuities.

Accurate and reliable NDT requires skilled personnel and well-maintained equipment. Proper training and certification of NDT personnel ensure proficiency in conducting inspections and interpreting test results.

Ongoing Maintenance and Monitoring

1). Periodic Inspection Schedules

Periodic inspections are essential to identify potential risks and assess the vessel’s condition over time. Regular inspections can detect emerging issues and help prevent failures.

2). Ensuring Proper Operation Conditions and Environmental Control

Adhering to recommended operating conditions and implementing proper environmental control measures can prevent damage to the vessel due to environmental factors.

3). Maintenance and Repair Options Based on ECA Outcomes

If flaws or defects are detected during inspections, ECA outcomes can guide decisions on whether to repair the vessel, replace components, or implement modifications to ensure safety and compliance with Codes and Standards.

4). Learning from Previous Failures

Analyzing past failures and incidents can provide valuable lessons and insights into improving pressure vessel design, fabrication, and maintenance practices.

Collaborative Efforts and Industry Regulations

Industry associations play a significant role in setting safety standards and best practices. Collaborative efforts among manufacturers, inspectors, and end-users contribute to continuous improvement and ensure adherence to safety guidelines.

Strict compliance with pressure vessel safety regulations, such as those enforced by Safe Work Australia, is essential to ensure the highest standards of safety and minimize the risk of failures.

Final Thoughts

Pressure vessel failures can have devastating consequences, endangering human lives, and causing extensive damage to the environment and property. Understanding the common causes of failures and implementing preventive techniques is crucial in ensuring the safe operation of pressure vessels across various industries. 

By complying with recognized Codes and Standards, performing Engineering Critical Assessments, utilizing advanced fatigue improvement techniques, conducting regular NDT inspections, and fostering collaboration within the industry, we can proactively prevent pressure vessel failures and safeguard the well-being of workers and communities in Australia and beyond. A commitment to continuous improvement and adherence to safety regulations will pave the way for a safer and more reliable future in pressure vessel operations.

Choose Sherwood Engineering For Pressure Vessel Design

With over 40 years of experience in engineering design services, Sherwood Design & Engineering is committed to delivering excellence in pressure vessel design, manufacturing, and support services. Our team of qualified engineers, designers, and consultants are dedicated to meeting the unique needs of various industries, ensuring compliance with regulations, and providing innovative solutions that enhance safety and performance.

Give us a call at (02) 9437 3566 or leave an enquiry if you would like to learn more about our pressure vessel engineering design and support services.

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