UMass Amherst research has major implications for polymer engineering

UMass Amherst Professor of Polymer Science and Engineering Alfred Crosby

Researchers led by a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently announced a major theoretical and experimental breakthrough that allows scientists to predict, with unprecedented accuracy, when soft material will crack and fail. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have immediate implications for the engineering and manufacturing of a wide range of polymers. They also provide information about how natural soft materials, such as the connective tissues in our bodies and even our brains, break down.

It has proven to be devilishly complex to predict when a soft material, such as a gel or an elastomer, will crack and fail. “It was a mystery”, says Alfred Croby, professor of polymer science and engineering at UMass Amherst and one of the paper’s lead authors. Because scientists haven’t been able to accurately predict when a soft material will fail, designers will typically over-engineer their products and recommend replacing them sooner rather than later, just to be safe. “But if we could predict exactly when a product would fail and under what conditions,” Crosby says, “we could design materials in the most efficient way to meet those conditions.”

Break that particular nut, which was backed up by the Office of Naval Research Naval Force Health Protection Programinvolved a multidisciplinary effort between Alfred Crosby, Gregory Tewalso professor of polymer science at UMass Amherst, and Robert Riggleman, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. With a combination of very precise chemistry, detailed and innovative computer modeling and fine experimental data, the group modified an older theory, called the Lake-Thomas theory, using a new molecular model known as the real elastic network theory name (RENT). “As a result,”

says Ipek Sacligil, a graduate student in polymer science at UMass Amherst, and one of the paper’s co-lead authors, “using only the molecular ingredients, we can now accurately predict when a soft material will fail at a time. at the molecular level and at the product level”.

Christopher Barney, one of the paper’s other co-lead authors and a graduate student at UMass at the time he completed this research, says, “This project underscores the importance of approaching modern scientific problems from multiple angles. By combining our efforts, we were able to create a complete story that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

“This breakthrough provides a missing link between chemistry and materials science and engineering for polymer networks,” says Crosby, who notes that this research is part of a much larger ongoing project understand the mechanics of cavitation or sudden, unstable expansions causing cracks in soft materials and tissues.

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Contact email: Daegan Miller

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