Failure of a Low-Carbon Steel Pressure Vessel From Caustic Embrittlement by Potassium Hydroxide
A large pressure vessel that had been in service as a hydrogen sulfide (H2S) absorber developed cracks and began leaking at a nozzle. The vessel contained a 20% aqueous solution of potassium hydroxide (KOH), potassium carbonate (K2CO3), and arsenic. The vessel wall was manufactured of ASTM A516, grade 70, low-carbon steel plate. A steel angle had been formed into a ring was continuously welded to the inside wall of the vessel. The groove formed by the junction of the lower tray-support weld and the top part of the weld around the nozzle was found to have a crack. Pits and scale near the crack origin were revealed by microscopic examination and cracking was found to be transgranular. Periods of corrosion alternated with sudden instances of cleavage, under a tensile load, along preferred slip planes were interpreted during examination with a microscope. It was concluded that the combination of the residual plus operating stresses and the amount of KOH present would have caused stress corrosion as a result of caustic embrittlement. It was recommended that the tray support should be installed higher on the vessel wall to prevent coincidence of the lower tray-support weld with the nozzle weld.