White etching cracks (WECs) have been identified as a dominant mode of premature failure within wind turbine gearbox bearings. Though WECs have been reported in the field for over a decade, the conditions leading to WECs and the process by which this failure culminates are both highly debated. In previously published work, the generation of WECs on a benchtop scale was linked to sliding at the surface of the test sample, and it was also postulated that the generation of WECs was dependent on the cumulative energy that had been applied to the sample over the entirety of the test. In this paper, a three-ring-on-roller benchtop test rig is used to systematically alter the cumulative energy that a sample experiences through changes in normal load, sliding, and run-time, in an attempt to correlate cumulative energy with the formation of WECs. It was determined that, in the current test setup, the presence of WECs can be predicted by this energy criterion. The authors then used this information to study the process by which WECs initiate. It was found that, under the current testing conditions, the formation of a dark etching microstructure precedes the formation of a crack, and a crack precedes the formation of white etching microstructure.
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