Fatigue is a major cause of failures concerning metal structures, being capable of causing catastrophic damage to the environment and considerable financial loss. Steel pipelines used in oil and gas industry for hydrocarbon transportation, for instance, are submitted to the action of cyclic loads, being susceptible to undergo fatigue failures. The phenomenon of metal fatigue is a complex process comprising different successive mechanisms. In general, four stages can be identified, representing microcrack initiation (nucleation), microcracking, macrocrack propagation, and final fracture. Fatigue damage prior to nucleation of microcracks is primarily related to localized plastic strain development at or near material surface during cycling. The microhardness of the material shows its ability to resist microplastic deformation caused by indentation or penetration, and is closely related to the material plastic slip capacity. Therefore, the study of changes in material surface microhardness during the different stages of fatigue process can estimate the evolution of the material resistance to microplastic deformations and, consequently, provide relevant information about the cumulated fatigue damage on the surface. The present work is part of a research study being carried out with the aim of proposing a new method based on microstructural changes, represented by a fatigue damage indicator, to predict fatigue life of steel structures submitted to cyclic loads, before macroscopic cracking. In a previous work, the X-ray diffraction technique was used to evaluate these changes. This technique presents several advantages, since it is non-destructive and concerns the surface and subsurface of the material, where major microstructural changes take place during fatigue. The most important parameter obtained by this technique is the full width at half maximum (FWHM) of the diffraction peak, which can provide information about the dislocation network density and estimate microdeformations. It was found that the evolution of this parameter with cycling presents three different stages, associated to the mechanisms of microcrack initiation, microcracking, macrocrack propagation, respectively. Here, the fatigue damage of pipeline steels is evaluated through microhardness testing. Different stages of changes in microhardness are also found and they are correlated to those observed with the X-ray technique and also with transmission electron microscopic (TEM) images from experimental tests performed with a similar material. This correlation can help to corroborate the X-ray diffraction results previously obtained and recommend then this non-destructive technique as the base of the method for predicting fatigue life of steel structures proposed here.

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