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What is the difference between strength and toughness?

By Michael Pfeifer
Published: October 30, 2017 | Last updated: January 24, 2022
Key Takeaways

For structural components exposed to fatigue conditions, designers must be concerned with both the strength and the toughness.

Source: Volodymyr Kaushan / Dreamstime.com

Strength is a measure of the stress that a crack-free metal can bear before deforming or breaking under a single applied load. Fracture toughness is a measure of the amount of energy required to fracture a material that contains a crack. The tougher the material, the more energy required to cause a crack to grow to fracture. For a particular alloy, lower fracture toughness corresponds to less ductility. For example, glass has very low toughness and is very brittle.


The Role of Load on Fracturing

For a component with a crack of a particular length, as the fracture toughness decreases, there is a decrease in the component’s ability to withstand its load before fracturing. Conversely, for a certain load, as the fracture toughness increases, a component can tolerate a longer crack before fracturing. As shown in the figure below, for any particular alloy, the toughness decreases as the tensile strength increases. (For further reading, see An In-Depth Look at Tensile Strength .) Consequently, when high toughness and high strength are both required, it is often necessary to change from one alloy to a different alloy that satisfies both requirements.



Considering Strength and Toughness During Material Selection

Designers are often tempted to use a material that is as strong as possible to enable them to minimize component cross-section. However, this can inadvertently lead to using a material with insufficient fracture toughness to withstand fracturing if a small crack forms in the material during component manufacturing or during use. Fatigue stress is one possible cause of cracks.

The formation of cracks in components exposed to fatigue conditions is often expected. In these situations, knowledge of the fracture toughness is required to determine how long the component can remain in service before a crack grows so long that the intact cross-section of the component cannot support the load, and the component fractures. This applies to aerospace components and pressure vessels such as boilers. (The role of corrosion is discussed in the article Effect of Corrosion on a Material's Tensile Strength and Ductility .)

For structural components exposed to fatigue conditions, designers must be concerned with both the strength and the toughness. The strength must be large enough that the material can withstand the applied loads without deforming. The toughness must be sufficient for the metal to withstand the formation of fatigue cracks without failing catastrophically.


More information about the relationship between strength, toughness and fracture behavior is in Deformation and Fracture Mechanics of Engineering Materials by R.W. Hertzberg.

The article and images previously appeared at https://www.imetllc.com/strength-toughness/. Reprinted with permission. Copyright Industrial Metallurgists, LLC.


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Written by Michael Pfeifer | Principal Consultant and Trainer for Industrial Metallurgists, LLC

Michael Pfeifer

Michael Pfeifer, Ph.D., P.E. is Principal Consultant and Trainer for Industrial Metallurgists, LLC. He provides metallurgy training and metallurgical engineering consulting to companies involved with product development and manufacturing. He has over 20 years of experience working on failure analysis, root cause analysis, product design, cost reduction, and quality improvement for a wide variety of products and materials.

Michael has a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Northwestern University and is a professional engineer licensed in Illinois. He is also the author of the book Materials Enabled Designs: The Materials Engineering Perspective to Product Design and Manufacturing.

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