From bond breaking to material failure in soft polymer networks: Failure of networks with controlled heterogeneity.
January 2017 - December 2020
In this project, I work together with about 10 colleagues to study soft polymer networks. A polymer is a large molecule composed of many repeated subunits. Because of their broad range of properties, both synthetic and natural polymers play an essential and ubiquitous role in everyday life. Chemistry gives us many tools to play around with the composition with these monomers. An example is a so-called crosslink molecule, which connect the polymers together and therefore produce the polymer network, that emit light when they are broken under a stress. We use this toolbox to study how polymer networks break when the mechanical load on them becomes too high. Predicting the conditions under which such failure occurs is a major concern to materials scientists developing soft polymeric materials for application in, e.g., foods, cosmetics, or tissue engineering. However, the complex interplay between the long-ranged elastic interactions and the strongly localized damage processes makes this a very difficult problem, especially for soft materials, which are governed by large deformations, viscoelasticity, and strong heterogeneity at the microscale.
The focus of my project will be on studying the fracture mechanics of heterogeneous networks (i.e. the networks have more or stronger cross-links in one part of the network than another). Therefore the first challenge will be to make networks with a controllable heterogeneity that are reproducible. In the first year of my research we have developed a material that, on a controllable length scale, is reproducibly heterogeneous in the distribution of crosslinks.
The next goal is to develop and experiment in which we can study the failure of the polymer network as a function of the heterogeneity of the network.
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