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Fractography is the study of the fracture surfaces of materials. Fractographic methods are routinely used to determine the cause of failure in engineering structures, especially in product failure and the practice of forensic engineering or failure analysis. In material science research, fractography is used to develop and evaluate theoretical models of crack growth behavior.

One of the aims of fractographic examination is to determine the cause of failure by studying the characteristics of a fractured surface. Different types of crack growth (e.g. fatigue, stress corrosion cracking, hydrogen embrittlement) produce characteristic features on the surface, which can be used to help identify the failure mode. The overall pattern of cracking can be more important than a single crack, however, especially in the case of brittle materials like ceramics and glasses.

An important aim of fractography is to establish and examine the origin of cracking, as examination at the origin may reveal the cause of crack initiation. Initial fractographic examination is commonly carried out on a macro scale utilising low power optical microscopy and oblique lighting techniques to identify the extent of cracking, possible modes and likely origins. Optical microscopy or macrophotography are often enough to pinpoint the nature of the failure and the causes of crack initiation and growth if the loading pattern is known.

Common features that may cause crack initiation are inclusions, voids or empty holes in the material, contamination, and stress concentrations. "Hachures", are the lines on fracture surfaces which show crack direction. The broken crankshaft shown at right failed from a surface defect near the bulb at lower centre, the single brittle crack growing up into the bulk material by small steps, a problem known as fatigue. The crankshaft also shows hachures which point back to the origin of the fracture. Some modes of crack growth can leave characteristic marks on the surface that identify the mode of crack growth and origin on a macro scale e.g. beachmarks or on fatigue cracks. The areas of the product can also be very revealing, especially if there are traces of sub-critical cracks, or cracks which have not grown to completion. They can indicate that the material was faulty when loaded, or alternatively, that the sample was overloaded at the time of failure.

  • Lewis, Peter Rhys, Reynolds, K, and Gagg, C, Forensic Materials Engineering: Case studies, CRC Press (2004).
  • Mills, Kathleen Fractography, American Society of Metals (ASM) handbook, volume 12 (1991).


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