Finite element modeling and experimental study of brittle fracture in tempered martensitic steels for thermonuclear fusion applications

In this work we have studied brittle fracture in high-chromium reduced activation tempered martensitic steels foreseen as structural materials for thermonuclear fusion reactors. Developing the adequate materials that can withstand the severe irradiation conditions of the burning plasma in a future fusion reactor is one of the major challenges to be solved in order to make profit from the great advantages of thermonuclear fusion as an energy source. High-chromium tempered martensitic steels such as F82H and the most advanced version Eurofer97 are among the main candidate materials for structural applications in future fusion power plants due to low irradiation-induced swelling, good mechanical and thermal properties, and reasonably fast radioactive decay. The most concerning drawback of these kind of steels is irradiation embrittlement, which is manifested by a ductile-to-brittle transition temperature shift to higher temperatures after irradiation whose amplitude depends on the irradiation conditions (temperature, neutron flux, neutron fluence, etc). The aim of this work was to study and model brittle fracture in the ductile-brittle transition region of this kind of steels in the as-received unirradiated conditions. It is necessary to be able to transfer laboratory specimen fracture data to real components and structures in order to assess the performance of these steels in the different operating and transient conditions they could find during the operation life of a fusion reactor. In order to do so, the specimen geometry effects and specimen size effects on measured fracture toughness need to be properly understood, taken into account and predicted with an appropriate model. In particular, specimen size effect on measured toughness is a major concern for the nuclear materials research community owing to the limited irradiation volume in current and planed materials irradiation facilities. The main results of this PhD work are summarized below. The microstructure of Eurofer97 and F82H has been characterized and compared by means of optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, transmission electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy in order to identify microstructural features that could play a role in the measured fracture toughness. Both steels have similar but slightly different chemical composition and final heat-treatments but the prior austenitic grain size measured in F82H is approximately 8 times larger than in Eurofer97. It was shown that the alloying element Tantalum, added to stabilize the austenite grain size, played a different role in both steels. After a careful analysis of the particles present in both steels, it was found that Tantalum in Eurofer97 formed carbides of an average size around 100 nanometers. In contrast in F82H it did not form small carbides but formed big oxide inclusions with a size up to 30 µm. These large particles do not effectively pin the grain boundaries. The different behavior of Tantalum in these steels is believed to be mainly a consequence of the larger content of Oxygen present and the smaller amount of Aluminum in F82H compared to Eurofer97. The Master-Curve ASTM-E1921 standard is a method initially developed to determine the ductile-to-brittle transition reference temperature, T0, in fission reactor ferritic steels from a small number of experiments. In this work the applicability of the Master-Curve method to reduced activation tempered martensitic steels such as Eurofer97 and F82H was studied in detail. Fracture tests with pre-cracked sub-sized compact tension specimens (three different sizes, 0.18T, 0.35T and 0.87T of Eurofer97) were carried out in the temperature range [-196 °C, -40 °C]. The toughness-temperature behavior and scatter were shown to deviate from the ASTM-E1921 standard predictions near the lower shelf. Using the method of maximum likelihood, the athermal component of the Master-Curve was calculated to better fit our fracture toughness data from the lower to the middle transition region. We showed that these Master-Curve adjustments are necessary to make the T0 values obtained near the lower shelf with 0.35T size C(T) specimens consistent with those obtained in the middle transition region with 0.87T C(T) specimens. The ASTM-E1921 specimen size limitations, setting the maximum toughness measurable with a given specimen size, were found to be too lenient for this kind of steels. This problem was especially evident in fracture toughness data of Eurofer97 and F82H obtained in the upper transition temperature range with two different specimen sizes. Thus a more stringent specimen size requirement was proposed to avoid inconsistent transition temperature determinations. A promising local fracture model with the potential of predicting cleavage fracture toughness was studied. Finite element simulations were undertaken for compact specimens, notched specimens and tensile specimens of Eurofer97 steel tested from 20 °C down to -197 °C. Three and two dimensional as well as axisymmetric simulations were run in order to calculate the stress and strain fields at the onset of brittle fracture. For each tested temperature, the calculated load-displacement curves were found to reproduce very well those of the experiments. A local approach fracture criterion was studied. This criterion states that when the maximum principal stress is larger than a critical stress within a critical volume ahead of the crack tip, notch or neck, cleavage is triggered leading to macroscopic fracture of the specimen. It was shown that this model is able to predict the minimum fracture load of the notched specimens with the same values of critical stress and critical volume that were calibrated to predict the lower bound of fracture in compact specimens. This local approach model was also successfully used to predict the strong size effect observed experimentally in pre-cracked compact tension specimens in the upper transition region. The critical fracture stress determined in the standard tensile specimens was found higher than that of the fracture specimens. It was suggested that this difference stems from a significant difference in the stress state between the different specimens (triaxiality). Finally, the comparison between the overall fracture behavior in the transition between F82H and Eurofer97 steels indicated that these two materials are quite similar. A difference in the reference temperature T0 of about 20 °C was found, with a nominal value of -100 °C and -80 °C for F82H and Eurofer97 respectively. However, some excessive scatter in the toughness data was found in F82H with more data points than expected lying below the 1% tolerance bound; this was not observed in Eurofer97. From an engineering point of view, the entire fracture databases of these two steels are encompassed practically by the same lower tolerance bound.

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