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Identifying multiple synergistic factors on the susceptibility to stress relaxation cracking in variously heat-treated weldments

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Mechanics of Materials
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The 347H austenitic stainless steel has been widely used for pressure vessels and pipeline (PVP) applications due to its excellent creep and corrosion resistance, which fit ideally to the harsh conditions in petrochemical industries, fossil fuel or nuclear power plants, and modern energy storages. However, a failure mode has been commonly observed with cracks emerging at the heat affected zone (HAZ) of weldments during post-weld heat treatment (PWHT) or under intermediate to high temperature service conditions. This phenomenon is termed as Stress Relaxation Cracking (SRC) since the purpose of PWHT is to relieve the welding-induced residual stress fields, or as Stress Age Cracking (SAC) if failure happens during service. A leading literature explanation of this failure suggests that the residual stress relaxation and the precipitation dissolution and/or re-precipitation occur in the same temperature range, which can lead to locally high strains and thus to crack at the grain boundaries. Since in situ spatial measurements of residual stress fields, microstructural evolution, and failure processes are nearly infeasible, this work recourses to a micromechanical finite element framework that models the high temperature failure as the nucleation and growth of grain boundary cavities, whereas various parameters such as thermomechanical loading history and its evolution, the competition of grain-interior dislocation creep and grain-boundary diffusion in failure lifetime, and microstructural heterogeneities (such as the precipitate free zone near grain boundaries) can be quantitatively incorporated. It can be concluded from these microstructure-explicit simulations that an accurate knowledge of residual stress evolution and a carefully calibrated set of material constitutive parameters are the essential prerequisites for lifetime predictions. The understanding of individual governing factors also leads to a mechanistic interpretation of the observed SRC susceptibility C-curves. These results suggest that the criticality of residual stress evolution, but not the precipitation-induced local strains, be the leading factor for SRC.