Fatigue (material)

In materials science, fatigue is the initiation and propagation of cracks in a material due to cyclic loading. Once a fatigue crack has initiated, it grows a small amount with each loading cycle, typically producing striations on some parts of the fracture surface. The crack will continue to grow until it reaches a critical size, which occurs when the stress intensity factor of the crack exceeds the fracture toughness of the material, producing rapid propagation and typically complete fracture of the structure.

Fracture of an aluminium crank arm. Dark area of striations: slow crack growth. Bright granular area: sudden fracture.

Fatigue has traditionally been associated with the failure of metal components which led to the term metal fatigue. In the nineteenth century, the sudden failing of metal railway axles was thought to be caused by the metal crystallising because of the brittle appearance of the fracture surface, but this has since been disproved.[1] Most materials, such as composites, plastics and ceramics, seem to experience some sort of fatigue-related failure.[2]

To aid in predicting the fatigue life of a component, fatigue tests are carried out using coupons to measure the rate of crack growth by applying constant amplitude cyclic loading and averaging the measured growth of a crack over thousands of cycles. However, there are also a number of special cases that need to be considered where the rate of crack growth is significantly different compared to that obtained from constant amplitude testing. Such as the reduced rate of growth that occurs for small loads near the threshold or after the application of an overload; and the increased rate of crack growth associated with short cracks or after the application of an underload.[2]

If the loads are above a certain threshold, microscopic cracks will begin to initiate at stress concentrations such as holes, persistent slip bands (PSBs), composite interfaces or grain boundaries in metals.[3] The stress values that cause fatigue damage are typically much less than the yield strength strength of the material.

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