Researchers at Rice University have created a synthetic material that gets stronger from repeated stress much like the body strengthens bones and muscles after repeated workouts.
Work by the Rice lab of Pulickel Ajayan, professor in mechanical engineering and materials science and of chemistry, shows the potential of stiffening polymer-based nanocomposites with carbon nanotube fillers. The team reported its discovery this month in the journal ACS Nano.
The trick, it seems, lies in the complex, dynamic interface between nanostructures and polymers in carefully engineered nanocomposite materials.
Brent Carey, a graduate student in Ajayan's lab, found the interesting property while testing the high-cycle fatigue properties of a composite he made by infiltrating a forest of vertically aligned, multiwalled nanotubes with polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), an inert, rubbery polymer. To his great surprise, repeatedly loading the material didn't seem to damage it at all. In fact, the stress made it stiffer.
Carey, whose research is sponsored by a NASA fellowship, used dynamic mechanical analysis (DMA) to test their material. He found that after an astounding 3.5 million compressions (five per second) over about a week's time, the stiffness of the composite had increased by 12 percent and showed the potential for even further improvement.
"It took a bit of tweaking to get the instrument to do this," Carey said. "DMA generally assumes that your material isn't changing in any permanent way. In the early tests, the software kept telling me, 'I've damaged the sample!' as the stiffness increased. I also had to trick it with an unsolvable program loop to achieve the high number of cycles."
Materials scientists know that metals can strain-harden during repeated deformation, a result of the creation and jamming of defects -- known as dislocations -- in their crystalline lattice. Polymers, which are made of long, repeating
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