Autonomous healing of fatigue cracks via cold welding

CM Barr and T Duong and DC Bufford and Z Milne and A Molkeri and NM Heckman and DP Adams and A Srivastava and K Hattar and MJ Demkowicz and BL Boyce, NATURE (2023).

DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06223-0

Fatigue in metals involves gradual failure through incremental propagation of cracks under repetitive mechanical load. In structural applications, fatigue accounts for up to 90% of in-service failure(1,2). Prevention of fatigue relies on implementation of large safety factors and inefficient overdesign(3). In traditional metallurgical design for fatigue resistance, microstructures are developed to either arrest or slow the progression of cracks. Crack growth is assumed to be irreversible. By contrast, in other material classes, there is a compelling alternative based on latent healing mechanisms and damage reversal(4-9). Here, we report that fatigue cracks in pure metals can undergo intrinsic self-healing. We directly observe the early progression of nanoscale fatigue cracks, and as expected, the cracks advance, deflect and arrest at local microstructural barriers. However, unexpectedly, cracks were also observed to heal by a process that can be described as crack flank cold welding induced by a combination of local stress state and grain boundary migration. The premise that fatigue cracks can autonomously heal in metals through local interaction with microstructural features challenges the most fundamental theories on how engineers design and evaluate fatigue life in structural materials. We discuss the implications for fatigue in a variety of service environments.

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