The Effects of Load Ratio on Threshold Fatigue Crack Growth of Aluminum Alloys


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Virginia Tech


The integrity of nearly all engineering structures are threatened by the presence of cracks. Structural failure occurs if a crack larger than a critical size exists. Although most well designed structures initially contain no critical cracks, subcritical cracks can grow to failure under fatigue loading, called fatigue crack growth (FCG). Because it is impossible or impractical to prevent subcritical crack growth in most applications, a damage tolerant design philosophy was developed for crack sensitive structures. Design engineers have taken advantage of the FCG threshold concept to design for long fatigue lives. FCG threshold (DKth) is a value of DK (crack-tip loading), below which no significant FCG occurs. Cracks are tolerated if DK is less than DKth. However, FCG threshold is not constant. Many variables influence DKth including microstructure, environment, and load ratio. The current research focuses on load ratio effects on DKth and threshold FCG. Two categories of load ratio effects are studied here: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic load ratio effects operate in the crack wake and include fatigue crack closure mechanisms. Intrinsic load ratio effects operate in the crack-tip process zone and include microcracking and void production. To gain a better understanding of threshold FCG load ratio effects (1) a fatigue crack closure model is developed to consider the most likely closure mechanisms at threshold, simultaneously, and (2) intrinsic load ratio mechanisms are identified and modeled.

An analytical fatigue crack closure model is developed that includes the three closure mechanisms considered most important at threshold (PICC, RICC, and OICC). Crack meandering and a limited amount of mixed-mode loading are also considered. The rough crack geometry, approximated as a two-dimensional sawtooth wave, results in a mixed-mode crack-tip stress state. Dislocation and continuum mechanics concepts are used to determine mixed-mode crack face displacements. Plasticity induced crack closure is included by modifying an existing analytical model, and an oxide layer in the crack mouth is modeled as a uniform layer. Finite element results were used to verify the analytical solutions for crack-tip stress intensity factor and crack face displacements. These results indicate that closure for rough cracks can occur at two locations: (1) at the crack-tip, and (2) at the asperity nearest the crack-tip. Both tip contact and asperity contact must be considered for rough cracks. Tip contact is more likely for high Kmax levels, thick oxide layers, and shallow asperity angles, a. Model results indicate that closure mechanisms combine in a synergistic manner. That is, when multiple closure mechanisms are active, the total closure level is greater than the sum of individual mechanisms acting alone. To better understand fatigue crack closure where multiple closure mechanisms are active (i.e. FCG threshold), these interactions must be considered. Model results are well supported by experimental data over a wide range of DK, including FCG threshold.

Closure-free load ratio effects were studied for aluminum alloys 2024, 7050, and 8009. Alloys 7050 and 8009 were selected because load ratio effects at FCG threshold are not entirely explained by fatigue crack closure. It is believed that closure-free load ratio mechanisms occur in these alloys. Aluminum alloy 2024 was selected for study because it is relatively well behaved, meandering most load ratio effects are explained by fatigue crack closure. A series of constant Kmax threshold tests on aluminum alloys were conducted to eliminate fatigue crack closure at threshold. Even in the absence of fatigue crack closure load ratio (Kmax) effects persist, and are correlated with increased crack-tip damage (i.e. voids) seen on the fatigue crack surfaces. Accelerated FCG was observed during constant Kmax threshold testing of 8009 aluminum. A distinct transition is seen the FCG data and is correlated with a dramatic increase in void production seen along the crack faces. Void production in 8009 aluminum is limited to the specimen interior (plane-strain conditions), promoting crack tunneling. At higher values of Kmax (+_ 22.0 MPaà m), where plane-stress conditions dominate, a transition to slant cracking occurs at threshold. The transition to slant cracking produces an apparent increase in FCG rate with decreasing DK. This unstable threshold behavior is related to constraint conditions. Finally, a model is developed to predict the accelerated FCG rates, at higher Kmax levels, in terms of crack-tip damage.

The effect of humidity (in laboratory air) on threshold FCG was studied to ensure that environmental effects at threshold were separated from load ratio effects. Although changes in humidity were shown to strongly affect threshold FCG rates, this influence was small for ambient humidity levels (relative humidity between 30% and 70%). Transient FCG behavior, following an abrupt change in humidity level, indicated environmental damage accumulated in the crack-tip monotonic plastic zone. Previous research implies that hydrogen (a component of water vapor) is the likely cause of this environmental damage. Analysis suggests that bulk diffusion is not a likely hydrogen transport mechanism in the crack-tip monotonic plastic zone. Rather, dislocation-assisted diffusion is presented as the likely hydrogen transport mechanism.

Finally, the (extrinsic) fatigue crack closure model and the (intrinsic) crack-tip damage model are put in the context of a comprehensive threshold model. The ultimate goal of the comprehensive threshold model is to predict fatigue lives of cyclically loaded engineering components from (small) crack nucleation, through FCG, and including failure. The models developed in this dissertation provide a basis for a more complete evaluation of threshold FCG and fatigue life prediction.

The research described in this dissertation was performed at NASA-Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Funding was provided through the NASA GSRP program (Graduate Student Researcher Program, grant number NGT-1-52174).



Humidity, R, Oxide-induced crack closure, Crack-tip damage, Kmax, Microcracks, Microvoids, Crack-tip process zone, Plasticity-induced crack closure, Aluminum alloys, Load ratio, Threshold, Fatigue crack closure, Fatigue crack growth, Roughness-induced crack closure