Stress corrosion cracking (SCC) is a type of environmentally-assisted cracking (EAC), or the formation of cracks caused by various factors combined with the environment surrounding the pipeline. SCC occurs as a result of a combination between corrosion and tensile stress. Corrosion is related to the susceptibility of the material to the environment, while stresses may be residual, external or operational.

The most obvious identifying characteristic of SCC in pipelines, regardless of pH, is the appearance of patches or colonies of parallel cracks on the external surface of the pipe.

SCC is usually oriented longitudinally, and the dominant stress that causes it is usually internal pressure. Here we'll take a look at some different types of stress corrosion cracking, and how they occur.

Conditions that Lead to Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC)

The occurrence of SCC depends on the simultaneous achievement of three conditions.

1. A Potent Cracking Environment
The conditions at the pipe surface are referred to as "the environment." This environment may be isolated from the surrounding soil by the pipe coating, and the conditions at the pipe surface may be different from those in the surrounding soil.

The four factors controlling the formation of the potent environment for the initiation of SCC are the type and condition of the coating, soil, temperature and cathodic current levels.

  • Pipeline Coating Types: SCC often begins on the pipeline surface at areas where coating disbondment or coating damage occurs. The ability of a coating to resist disbonding is a primary performance property of coatings and affects all forms of external pipeline corrosion. Coatings with good adhesion properties are generally resistant to the mechanical action of soils from wet/dry cycles and freeze/thaw cycles. They also are better able to resist the effects of water transmission and cathodic disbondment.
  • Soil: There are several factors relating to soils that influence the formation of an environment that's conducive to SCC. These are soil type, drainage, carbon dioxide (CO2), temperature and electrical conductivity. The amount of moisture in the soil also affects the formation of stress corrosion cracks.
  • Cathodic Protection: The presence of cathodic protection (CP) current is a key factor in the formation of a carbonate/bicarbonate environment at the pipeline surface, where high pH SCC occurs. For near-neutral pH, SCC CP is absent.
  • Temperature: Temperature has a significant effect on the occurrence of high pH SCC, while it has no effect on near-neutral pH SCC.

2. A Material that Is Susceptible to SCC
In addition to a potent environment, a susceptible pipe material is another necessary condition in the development of SCC. A number of pipe characteristics and qualities are considered to determine if they are possibly related to the susceptibility of a pipe to SCC. These factors include the pipe manufacturing process, type of steel, grade of steel, cleanliness of the steel (presence or absence of impurities or inclusions), steel composition, plastic deformation characteristics of the steel (cyclic-softening characteristics), steel temperature and pipe surface condition. (For examples of susceptible materials, see Hydrogen Embrittlement Issues with Zinc and Causes and Prevention of Corrosion on Welded Joints.)

3. A Tensile Stress that's Higher than Threshold Stress
When tensile stress is higher than threshold stress, this can lead to SCC, especially when there is some dynamic or cyclic component to the stress. (For more on this topic, read The Effects of Stress Concentration on Crack Propagation.) Stress is the "load" per unit area within the pipe wall. A buried pipeline is subject to different types of stress from different sources. The pipeline’s contents are under pressure and that is normally the greatest source of stress on the pipe wall. The soil that surrounds the pipe can move and is another source of stress. Pipe manufacturing processes, such as welding, can also create stresses. These are called residual stresses.

Types of Stress Corrosion Cracking

SCC in pipelines is further characterized as "high pH SCC" or "near-neutral pH SCC." Note that the "pH" here refers to the environment on the pipe surface at the crack location, not the pH of the soil itself.

High pH Stress Corrosion Cracking (Classic Type)
High pH SCC occurs on the external surface of pipelines where the electrolyte in contact with the pipe surface has a pH of 8-11 and the concentration of carbonate/bicarbonate is very high. This electrolyte is found at disbonded areas of coatings where the CP current is insufficient to protect the pipeline. This type of SCC may develop as a result of the interaction between hydroxyl ions produced by the cathode reaction and CO2 in the soil generated by the decay of organic matter.

This form of SCC is temperature-sensitive and occurs more frequently at higher temperature locations above 100°F (38°C). This is why there is a greater likelihood of SCC immediately downstream of the compressor stations where the operating temperature might reach 150°F (65°C).

The high-pH form of SCC is intergranular; the cracks propagate between the grains in the metal, and there is usually little evidence of general corrosion associated with the cracking. These cracks are very tight, narrow cracks.

Near-Neutral pH Stress Corrosion Cracking (Non-Classic Type)
A near-neutral pH SCC environment appears to be a dilute groundwater containing dissolved CO2. The source of the CO2 is typically the decay of organic matter and geochemical reactions in the soil. It has been found that low pH SCC occurs in environments with a low concentration of carbonic acid and bicarbonate ions with the presence of other species, including chloride, sulfate and nitrate ions.

Typically, the SCC colonies initiate at locations on the outside surface, where there is already pitting or general corrosion. This damage is sometimes obvious to the unaided eye, while at other times it is very difficult to observe.

The near-neutral-pH form of SCC is transgranular; the cracks propagate through the grains in the metal and are wider (more open) than they would be in the high-pH form of SCC. In other words, the crack sides have experienced metal loss from corrosion. Near-neutral-pH SCC is less temperature-dependent than high-pH SCC.

How Crack Growth Occurs

Stress corrosion cracking in pipelines begins when small cracks develop on the external surface of buried pipelines. These cracks are not visible initially, but as time passes, these individual cracks may grow and forms colonies, and many of them join together to form longer cracks.

The SCC phenomenon has four key stages:

  1. The initiation of stress corrosion cracks
  2. The slow growth of cracks
  3. The coalescence of cracks
  4. Crack propagation and structural failure

This process can take many years depending on the conditions of the steel, the environment and the stresses to which a pipeline is subjected. Consequently, failure as a result of SCC is relatively rare, although failures can be very costly and destructive when they do occur.