Alan Arnold Griffith - Metal Fatigue

Metal Fatigue

Griffith is more famous for a theoretical study on the nature of stress and failure in metals. At the time it was generally taken that the strength of a material was E/10, where E was the Young's modulus for that material. However it was well known that those materials would often fail at 1000 times less than this predicted value. Griffith discovered that there were many microscopic cracks in every material, and hypothesized that these cracks lowered the overall strength of the material. This was because any void in a solid concentrates stress, a fact already well known to machinists at the time. This concentration would allow the stress to reach E/10 at the head of the crack long before it would seem to for the material as a whole.

From this work Griffith formulated his own theory of brittle fracture, using elastic strain energy concepts. His theory described the behavior of crack propagation of an elliptical nature by considering the energy involved. The equation, Griffith's criterion, basically states that when a crack is able to propagate enough to fracture a material, that the gain in the surface energy is equal to the loss of strain energy, and is considered to be the primary equation to describe brittle fracture. Because the strain energy released is directly proportional to the square of the crack length, it is only when the crack is relatively short that its energy requirement for propagation exceeds the strain energy available to it. Beyond the critical Griffith crack length, the crack becomes dangerous.

The work, published in 1920 ("The phenomenon of rupture and flow in solids"), resulted in sweeping changes in many industries. Suddenly the "hardening" of materials due to processes such as cold rolling were no longer mysterious. Aircraft designers immediately understood why their designs had failed even though they were built much stronger than was thought necessary at the time, and soon turned to polishing their metals in order to remove cracks. The result was a series of particularly beautiful designs in the 1930s, such as the Boeing 247. This work was later generalized by G. R. Irwin, in the 1950s, applying it to almost all materials, not just rigid ones.

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