A NORTH-EAST engineer has won a prize for his investigation into a mysterious spate of failures in the chemicals industry.

Steve Woodward, a senior materials engineer at Axiom Engineering Associates, based in Stockton, wrote a paper for the Cleveland Institution of Engineers (CIE) after spotting a series of unusual failures in high strength lifting chains used by firms in the chemical industry.

Steve explained: “Although cracks in chains are not uncommon, what is unusual is the frequency and number of failures recently. We have seen problems in Teesside, Humberside and Scotland in a very short space of time.”

When chains began failing in large numbers Axiom, which has an international reputation as a specialist in failure analysis, was called in to investigate and discover what was going wrong.

“The cause was a mechanism known generically as hydrogen cracking,” said Steve. “Hydrogen atoms enter the chain links causing a build-up of internal stress which ultimately leads to cracking or embrittlement.

“Due to the difficulties in locating cracks within small chain links, very often the end users become aware of the problem only when the chains fail catastrophically in use.”

Steve said: “Hydrogen cracking mechanisms are well documented and known to be caused by certain forms of corrosion, but the real puzzle is why newer items have failed in preference to similar, older chains, some of which were harder and therefore potentially more vulnerable to failure. “It begs the question also as to whether the chains might have contained defects from manufacture.”

Steve’s paper about the investigation – entitled The Weakest Link - has won him the 2015 CIE prize and a £400 cash reward.

Sue Parker, the CIE’s technical events officer, explained: “Every year we invite people to submit a written paper on an area of scientific interest for judging. The winner must demonstrate a thorough grasp of their subject and their paper must be of relevance to the area and well written.”

This year’s judges were Dr Graham Hiller, the director responsible for strategy and futures at the Teesside Centre for Process Innovation, Dr Chris Beck, strategic funding manager at TWI, in Stockton, and Vince Ludlow, formerly a principal researcher and knowledge group leader for Tata Steel.

Steve said that he was both surprised and honoured to have won first prize and hopes that his article will prompt lively debate and encourage end users to delve more deeply into their supply chain. He also hopes that his work may rekindle metallurgical interest within the HSE, which has investigated similar failures in the past.