Mechanics of solids

Mechanics of solids, science concerned with the stressing, deformation, and failure of solid materials and structures.

What, then, is a solid? Any material, fluid or solid, can support normal forces. These are forces directed perpendicular, or normal, to a material plane across which they act. The force per unit of area of that plane is called the normal stress. Water at the base of a pond, air in an automobile tire, the stones of a Roman arch, rocks at the base of a mountain, the skin of a pressurized airplane cabin, a stretched rubber band, and the bones of a runner all support force in that way (some only when the force is compressive).

A material is called solid rather than fluid if it can also support a substantial shearing force over the time scale of some natural process or technological application of interest. Shearing forces are directed parallel, rather than perpendicular, to the material surface on which they act; the force per unit of area is called shear stress. For example, consider a vertical metal rod that is fixed to a support at its upper end and has a weight attached at its lower end. If one considers a horizontal surface through the material of the rod, it will be evident that the rod supports normal stress. But it also supports shear stress, and this becomes evident when one considers the forces carried across a plane that is neither horizontal nor vertical through the rod. Thus, while water and air provide no long-term support of shear stress, granite, steel, and rubber normally do so and are therefore called solids. Materials with tightly bound atoms or molecules, such as the crystals formed below melting temperature by most substances or simple compounds and the amorphous structures formed in glass and many polymer substances at sufficiently low temperature, are usually considered solids.

The distinction between solids and fluids is not precise and in many cases will depend on the time scale. Consider the hot rocks of the Earth’s mantle. When a large earthquake occurs, an associated deformation disturbance called a seismic wave propagates through the adjacent rock, and the entire Earth is set into vibrations which, following a sufficiently large earthquake, may remain detectable with precise instruments for several weeks. The rocks of the mantle are then described as solid—as they would also be on the time scale of, say, tens to thousands of years, over which stresses rebuild enough in the source region to cause one or a few repetitions of the earthquake. But on a significantly longer time scale, say, on the order of a million years, the hot rocks of the mantle are unable to support shearing stresses and flow as a fluid. The substance called Silly Putty (trademark), a polymerized silicone gel familiar to many children, is another example. If a ball of it is left to sit on a table at room temperature, it flows and flattens on a time scale of a few minutes to an hour. But if picked up and tossed as a ball against a wall, so that large forces act only over the short time of the impact, the Silly Putty bounces back and retains its shape like a highly elastic solid.

Several types of solids can be distinguished according to their mechanical behaviour. In the simple but common case when a solid material is loaded at a sufficiently low temperature or short time scale, and with sufficiently limited stress magnitude, its deformation is fully recovered upon unloading. The material is then said to be elastic. But substances can also deform permanently, so that not all the deformation is recovered. For example, if one bends a metal coat hanger substantially and then releases the loading, it springs back only partially toward its initial shape; it does not fully recover but remains bent. The metal of the coat hanger has been permanently deformed, and in this case, for which the permanent deformation is not so much a consequence of longtime loading at sufficiently high temperature but more a consequence of subjecting the material to large stresses (above the yield stress), the permanent deformation is described as a plastic deformation and the material is called elastic-plastic. Permanent deformation of a sort that depends mainly on time of exposure to a stress—and that tends to increase significantly with time of exposure—is called viscous, or creep, deformation, and materials that exhibit those characteristics, as well as tendencies for elastic response, are called viscoelastic solids (or sometimes viscoplastic solids, when the permanent strain is emphasized rather than the tendency for partial recovery of strain upon unloading).

Solid mechanics has many applications. All those who seek to understand natural phenomena involving the stressing, deformation, flow, and fracture of solids, as well as all those who would have knowledge of such phenomena to improve living conditions and accomplish human objectives, have use for solid mechanics. The latter activities are, of course, the domain of engineering, and many important modern subfields of solid mechanics have been actively developed by engineering scientists concerned, for example, with mechanical, structural, materials, civil, or aerospace engineering. Natural phenomena involving solid mechanics are studied in geology, seismology, and tectonophysics, in materials science and the physics of condensed matter, and in some branches of biology and physiology. Furthermore, because solid mechanics poses challenging mathematical and computational problems, it (as well as fluid mechanics) has long been an important topic for applied mathematicians concerned, for example, with partial differential equations and with numerical techniques for digital computer formulations of physical problems.

Here is a sampling of some of the issues addressed using solid mechanics concepts: How do flows develop in the Earth’s mantle and cause continents to move and ocean floors to subduct (i.e., be thrust) slowly beneath them? How do mountains form? What processes take place along a fault during an earthquake, and how do the resulting disturbances propagate through the Earth as seismic waves, shaking, and perhaps collapsing, buildings and bridges? How do landslides occur? How does a structure on a clay soil settle with time, and what is the maximum bearing pressure that the footing of a building can exert on a soil or rock foundation without rupturing it? What materials should be chosen, and how should their proportion, shape, and loading be controlled, to make safe, reliable, durable, and economical structures—whether airframes, bridges, ships, buildings, chairs, artificial heart valves, or computer chips—and to make machinery such as jet engines, pumps, and bicycles? How do vehicles (cars, planes, ships) respond by vibration to the irregularity of surfaces or mediums along which they move, and how are vibrations controlled for comfort, noise reduction, and safety against fatigue failure? How rapidly does a crack grow in a cyclically loaded structure, whether a bridge, engine, or airplane wing or fuselage, and when will it propagate catastrophically? How can the deformability of structures during impact be controlled so as to design crashworthiness into vehicles? How are the materials and products of a technological civilization formed—e.g., by extruding metals or polymers through dies, rolling material into sheets, punching out complex shapes, and so on? By what microscopic processes do plastic and creep strains occur in polycrystals? How can different materials, such as fibre-reinforced composites, be fashioned together to achieve combinations of stiffness and strength needed in specific applications? What is the combination of material properties and overall response needed in downhill skis or in a tennis racket? How does the human skull respond to impact in an accident? How do heart muscles control the pumping of blood in the human body, and what goes wrong when an aneurysm develops?

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