A cracking incident of a 304 stainless steel elbow serving in the synthesis gas purification device occurred during running. In order to get an understanding of the failure mechanism, a failure analysis was performed on the cracked elbow in this paper. The chemical composition, mechanical properties of strength, toughness and hardness, hydrogen content were identified and determined. The metallographical structure was observed and analyzed by optical microscope (OM) and X-Ray Diffraction (XRD), while the fracture morphology was observed by scanning electron microscope (SEM). The results showed that the chemical composition of the cracked elbow meet the requirements for China standard, while comparing with GB/T 14976-2012 standards, the strength and elongation of the leaked elbow are higher and lower respectively, and the hardness of the leaked elbow was higher than quality certificate documents that of HB ⩽ 187. Large quantities of martensite and δ-ferrite were observed in elbow, which indicated that the elbow was not well solid solution heat treated required by specification (1050°C,30min). The fracture morphology presents typical brittle fracture. The hydrogen content of cracked elbow was significant higher than that of other 304 stainless steel elbow serving in the environment without hydrogen. It is acknowledged that martensite showed higher sensitivity of hydrogen embrittlement compared with austenite. Furthermore, the operating temperature of cracked elbow was in the range of high hydrogen embrittlement sensitivity. Depending on the metallographical structure, strength, service environment, hydrogen content and fracture morphology, it can be concluded that hydrogen induced delayed cracking was the dominant mechanism of the failure.

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