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Hydrogen Embrittlement

The embrittlement of of metal or alloy by atomic hydrogen involves the ingress of hydrogen into a component, an event that can seriously reduce the ductility and load-bearing capacity, cause cracking and catastrophic brittle failures at stresses below the yield stress of susceptible materials. Hydrogen embrittlement occurs in a number of forms but the common features are an applied tensile stress and hydrogen dissolved in the metal.

Examples of hydrogen embrittlement are cracking of weldments or hardened steels when exposed to conditions which inject hydrogen into the component. Presently this phenomenon is not completely understood and hydrogen embrittlement detection, in particular, seems to be one of the most difficult aspects of the problem. Hydrogen embrittlement does not affect all metallic materials equally. The most vulnerable are high-strength steels, titanium alloys and aluminum alloys.

Sources of Hydrogen

Sources of hydrogen causing embrittlement have been encountered in the making of steel, in processing parts, in welding, in storage or containment of hydrogen gas, and related to hydrogen as a contaminant in the environment that is often a by-product of general corrosion. It is the latter that concerns the nuclear industry. Hydrogen may be produced by corrosion reactions such as rusting, cathodic protection, and electroplating. Hydrogen may also be added to reactor coolant to remove oxygen from reactor coolant systems. Hydrogen entry, the obvious pre-requisite of embrittlement, can be facilitated in a number of ways summarized below: (Defence Standard 03-30, October 2000)

  1. by some manufacturing operations such as welding, electroplating, phosphating and pickling; if a material subject to such operations is susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement then a final, baking heat treatment to expel any hydrogen is employed
  2. as a by-product of a corrosion reaction such as in circumstances when the hydrogen production reaction (Equation 2) acts as the cathodic reaction since some of the hydrogen produced may enter the metal in atomic form rather than be all evolved as a gas into the surrounding environment. In this situation, cracking failures can often be thought of as a type of stress corrosion cracking. If the presence of hydrogen sulfide causes entry of hydrogen into the component, the cracking phenomenon is often termed “sulphide stress cracking (SSC)”
  3. the use of cathodic protection for corrosion protection if the process is not properly controlled.

Hydrogen Embrittlement of Stainless Steel

Hydrogen diffuses along the grain boundaries and combines with the carbon, which is alloyed with the iron, to form methane gas. The methane gas is not mobile and collects in small voids along the grain boundaries where it builds up enormous pressures that initiate cracks. Hydrogen embrittlement is a primary reason that the reactor coolant is maintained at a neutral or basic pH in plants without aluminum components.

If the metal is under a high tensile stress, brittle failure can occur. At normal room temperatures, the hydrogen atoms are absorbed into the metal lattice and diffused through the grains, tending to gather at inclusions or other lattice defects. If stress induces cracking under these conditions, the path is transgranular. At high temperatures, the absorbed hydrogen tends to gather in the grain boundaries and stress-induced cracking is then intergranular. The cracking of martensitic and precipitation hardened steel alloys is believed to be a form of hydrogen stress corrosion cracking that results from the entry into the metal of a portion of the atomic hydrogen that is produced in the following corrosion reaction.

Hydrogen embrittlement is not a permanent condition. If cracking does not occur and the environmental conditions are changed so that no hydrogen is generated on the surface of the metal, the hydrogen can rediffuse from the steel, so that ductility is restored.

To address the problem of hydrogen embrittlement, emphasis is placed on controlling the amount of residual hydrogen in steel, controlling the amount of hydrogen pickup in processing, developing alloys with improved resistance to hydrogen embrittlement, developing low or no embrittlement plating or coating processes, and restricting the amount of in-situ (in position) hydrogen introduced during the service life of a part.