Cracking and adhesion at small scales: Atomistic and continuum studies of flaw tolerant nanostructures

Markus J. Buehler, Haimin Yao, Huajian Gao, Baohua Ji

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69 Citations (Scopus)


Once the characteristic size of materials reaches nanoscale, the mechanical properties may change drastically and classical mechanisms of materials failure may cease to hold. In this paper, we focus on joint atomistic-continuum studies of failure and deformation of nanoscale materials. In the first part of the paper, we discuss the size dependence of brittle fracture. We illustrate that if the characteristic dimension of a material is below a critical length scale that can be on the order of several nanometres, the classical Griffith theory of fracture no longer holds. An important consequence of this finding is that materials with nano-substructures may become flaw-tolerant, as the stress concentration at crack tips disappears and failure always occurs at the theoretical strength of materials, regardless of defects. Our atomistic simulations complement recent continuum analysis (Gao et al 2003 Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100 5597-600) and reveal a smooth transition between Griffith modes of failure via crack propagation to uniform bond rupture at theoretical strength below a nanometre critical length. Our results may have consequences for understanding failure of many small-scale materials. In the second part of this paper, we focus on the size dependence of adhesion systems. We demonstrate that optimal adhesion can be achieved by either length scale reduction, or by optimization of the shape of the surface of the adhesion element. We find that whereas change in shape can lead to optimal adhesion strength, those systems are not robust against small deviations from the optimal shape. In contrast, reducing the dimensions of the adhesion system results in robust adhesion devices that fail at their theoretical strength, regardless of the presence of flaws. An important consequence of this finding is that even under the presence of surface roughness, optimal adhesion is possible provided the size of contact elements is sufficiently small. Our atomistic results corroborate earlier theoretical modelling at the continuum scale (Gao and Yao 2004 Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101 7851-6). We discuss the relevance of our studies with respect to nature's design of bone nanostructures and nanoscale adhesion elements in geckos.
Original languageEnglish
Article number001
Pages (from-to)799-816
Number of pages18
JournalModelling and Simulation in Materials Science and Engineering
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Modelling and Simulation
  • Materials Science(all)
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Computer Science Applications

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