Tag Archives: strain energy

Designing for damage

Eighteen months ago I wrote about an insight on high-speed photography that Clive Siviour shared during his 2016 JSA Young Investigator Lecture [see my post entitled ‘Popping balloons‘ on June 15th, 2016].  Clive is interested in high-speed photography because he studies the properties of materials when they are subject to very high rates of deformation, in particular polymers used in mobile phones and cycle helmets – the design requirements for these two applications are very different.  The polymer used in the case of your mobile phone needs to protect the electronics inside your phone by absorbing the kinetic energy when you drop the phone on a tiled floor and it needs to be able to do this repeatedly because you are unlikely to replace the case after each accidental drop. A cyclist’s helmet also needs to protect what is inside it but it only needs to do this once because you will replace your helmet after an accident.  So, the kinetic energy resulting from an impact can be dissipated through the propagation of damage in the helmut; but in the phone case, it has to be absorbed temporarily as strain energy and then released, like in a spring.

Of course there is at least an order of magnitude difference in the consequences associated with the design of a phone case and a cycle helmet.  We can step up the consequences, at least another order of magnitude, by considering the impact performance of the polycarbonate used in the cockpit windows of airplanes.  These need to able absorb the energy associated with impacts by birds, runway debris and other objects, as well as withstanding the cycles of pressurisation associated with take-off, cruising at altitude and landing.  They can be replaced after an event but only once the plane as landed safely.  Consequently, an in-depth understanding of the material behaviour under these different loading conditions is needed to produce a successful design.  Of course, we also need a detailed knowledge of the loading conditions, which are influenced not just by the conditions and events during flight but also the way in which the window is attached to the rest of the airplane.  A large and diverse team is needed to ensure that all of this knowledge and understanding is effectively integrated in the design of the cockpit window.  The team is likely to include experts in materials, damage mechanics, structural integrity, aerodynamic loading as well as manufacturing and finance, since the window has to be made and fitted into the aircraft at an acceptable cost.  A similar team will be needed to design the mobile phone casing with the addition of product design and marketing expertise because it is a consumer product.  In other words, engineering is team activity and engineers must be able to function as team members and leaders.

I wrote this post shortly after Clive’s lecture but since then it is has languished in my drafts folder – in part because I thought it was too long and boring.  However, my editor encourages me to write about engineering more often and so, I have dusted it off and shortened it (slightly!).

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Airbus_A350_cockpit_windows_(14274972354).jpg

Alan Arnold Griffith

Everest of fracture surface [By Kaspar Kallip (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons]

Some of you maybe aware that I hold the AA Griffith Chair of Structural Materials and Mechanics at the University of Liverpool.  I feel that some comment on this blog about Griffith’s seminal work is long overdue and so I am correcting that this week.  I wrote this piece for a step in week 4 of a five-week MOOC on Understanding Super Structures which will start on May 22nd, 2017.

Alan Arnold Griffith was a pioneer in fracture mechanics who studied mechanical engineering at the University of Liverpool at the beginning of the last century.  He earned a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree and a PhD before moving to work for the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough in 1915.

He is famous for his study of failure in materials.  He observed that there were microscopic cracks or flaws in materials that concentrated the stress.  And he postulated that these cracks were the source of failure in a material.  He used strain energy concepts to analyse the circumstances in which a crack or flaw would propagate and cause failure of a component.  In order to break open a material, we need to separate adjacent atoms from one another, and break the bonds between them.  This requires a steady supply of energy to do the work required to separate one pair of atoms after another and break their bonds.  It’s a bit like unpicking a seam to let out your trousers when you’ve put on some weight.  You have to unpick each stitch and if you stop working the seam stays half undone.  In a material with a stress raiser or concentration, then the concentration is quite good at delivering stress and strain to the local area to separate atoms and break bonds.  This is fine when external work is being applied to the material so that there is a constant supply of new energy that can be used to break bonds.  But what about, if the supply of external energy dries up, then can the crack continue to grow?  Griffith concluded that in certain circumstances it could continue to grow.

He arrived at this conclusion by postulating that the energy required to propagate the crack was the work of fracture per unit length of crack, that’s the work needed to separate two atoms and break their bond.  Since atoms are usually distributed uniformly in a material, this energy requirement increases linearly with the length of the crack.  However, as the crack grows the material in its wake can no longer sustain any load because the free surface formed by the crack cannot react against a load to satisfy Newton’s Law.  The material in the wake of the crack relaxes, and gives up strain energy [see my post entitled ‘Slow down time to think (about strain energy)‘ on March 8th, 2017], which can be used to break more bonds at the crack tip.  Griffith postulated that the material in the wake of the crack tip would look like the wake from a ship, in other words it would be triangular, and so the strain energy released would proportional to area of the wake, which in turn would be related to the crack length squared.

So, for a short crack, the energy requirement to extend the crack exceeds the strain energy released in its wake and the crack will be stable and stationary; but there is a critical crack length, at which the energy release is greater than the energy requirements, and the crack will grow spontaneously and rapidly leading to very sudden failure.

While I have followed James Gordon’s lucid explanation of Griffith’s theory and used a two-dimensional approach, Griffith actually did it in three-dimensions, using some challenging mathematics, and arrived at an expression for the critical length of crack. However, the conclusion is the same, that the critical length is related to the ratio of the work required for new surfaces and the stored strain energy released as the crack advances.  Griffith demonstrated his theory for glass and then others quickly demonstrated that it could be applied to a range of materials.

For instance, rubber can absorb a lot of strain energy and has a low work of fracture, so the critical crack length for spontaneous failure is very low, which is why balloons go pop when you stick a pin in them.  Nowadays, tyre blowouts are relatively rare because the rubber in a tyre is reinforced with steel cords that increase the work required to create new surfaces – it’s harder to separate the rubber because it’s held together by the cords.

By the way, James Gordon’s explanation of Griffith’s theory of fracture, which I mentioned, can be found in his seminal book: ‘Structures, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down’ published by Penguin Books Ltd in 1978.  The original work was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society as ‘The Phenomena of Rupture and Flow in Solids’ by AA Griffith, February 26, 1920.