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Understanding Toughness

August 10, 2015

MIE Associate Professor Sandra Shefelbine, Assistant Professor Randal Erb & Physics Professor Alain Karma received a $445K NSF grant to determine the toughness of a material and try to recreate it with synthetic components.

Abstract Source: NSF

Toughness is a material's ability to withstand fracture. Understanding and predicting this key property remains a major challenge for most structural materials. In biological systems high toughness is commonly associated with composite microstructures. Often, soft flexible proteins are found in combination with a hard mineral crystal, organized with specific orientations. This project will utilize novel methods for constructing synthetic composite materials in which the material components can be arranged in a controlled way to achieve a large array of different microstructures. The materials will be tested mechanically to determine their strength and toughness. Computer models of the materials will be generated in order to predict crack propagation, giving insight into the critical physical principles governing tough materials. This project will determine critical characteristics of tough materials. Thereby, the anticipated research outcomes will improve the ability to construct materials with optimal mechanical properties. Undergraduate students and high school summer interns will be involved in the construction and mechanical testing of the materials. A K-8 module entitled 'Being tough' will be developed to teach students underlying principles of mechanics of materials, including composite structures, orientation of components, and material properties.

This project combines computational and experimental studies of crack propagation to determine the relative importance of material anisotropy and heterogeneities in crack path selection and fracture toughness. Novel synthetic discontinuous fiber composites will be produced whereby inhomogeneity and anisotropy of the composite can be tuned with a magnetic field. Numerical simulations will employ the phase field method to predict complex crack paths in materials with defined anisotropy and heterogeneities. Crack propagation will be experimentally measured and computationally predicted in various loading configurations. The interaction of cracks with macroscopic heterogeneities, and crack growth in anisotropic materials will be investigated. With this research we can determine what type and amount of anisotropy (elastic moduli versus fracture energy) lead to crack destabilization, how these instabilities manifest for different modes of fracture in two and three dimensions, and what relative importance anisotropy and heterogeneity have in promoting crack deflection and increased toughness.