Researchers predict when a soft material will fail

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Scientists led by a team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently reported a major theoretical and experimental breakthrough that allows researchers to predict with unprecedented precision when a soft material will crack and fail.

UMass Amherst Professor of Polymer Science and Engineering Alfred Crosby. Image source: University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The research observations have immediate implications for the engineering and production of various polymers. They also shed light on how natural soft materials such as connective tissue and the brain break down in the human body. The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is extremely difficult to predict when a soft material such as a gel or an elastomer will rupture and fail.

It was a mystery. But if we could accurately predict when a product would fail and under what conditions, We could develop materials in the most efficient way to meet those conditions.

Alfred Crosby, Study Senior Author and Professor, Polymer Science and Engineering, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Because scientists couldn’t predict when a soft material will fail, designers often revise their products and advise replacing them sooner rather than later, just to be on the safe side.

Alfred Crosby, Gregory Tew, also a professor of polymer science at UMass Amherst, and Robert Riggleman, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, collaborated on this research, which was funded by the Office of Naval Research’s Naval Force Health Protection Program.

Using a combination of high-precision chemistry, detailed and innovative computer modeling, and fine-grained experimental data, researchers modified an older theory known as the Lake Thomas theory using a newer molecular model known as the Real Elastic Network Theory (RENT) .

As a result, now, by using only the molecular ingredients, we can accurately predict when a soft material will fail at both a molecular and product level.

Ipek Sacligil, study co-lead author and graduate student, Polymer Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This project underscores the importance of tackling modern scientific problems from multiple perspectives. By combining our efforts, we were able to create a comprehensive story that is far greater than the sum of its parts‘ adds Christopher Barney, one of the other co-lead authors on the study and a graduate student at UMass at the time he was completing this research.

This advance represents a missing link between chemistry and materials science and engineering for polymer networks.

Alfred Crosby, Study Senior Author and Professor, Polymer Science and Engineering, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Crosby also mentions that this research is part of a larger ongoing project to understand more about the mechanics of cavitation, or sudden expansions in soft materials and tissues that cause unstable cracks.

Magazine reference:

Barney, CW, et al. (2022) Fracture of model end-connected networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2112389119.

Source: https://www.umass.edu/

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