Elasticity - Real-life applications
E LASTIC AND P LASTIC D EFORMATION
As noted earlier, the elastic limit is the maximum stress to which a given solid can be subjected without experiencing permanent deformation, referred to as plastic deformation. Plastic deformation describes a permanent change in shape or size as a result of stress; by contrast, elastic deformation is only a temporary change in dimension.
A classic example of elastic deformation, and indeed, of highly elastic behavior, is a rubber band: it can be deformed to a length many times its original size, but upon release, it returns to its original shape. Examples of plastic deformation, on the other hand, include the bending of a steel rod under tension or the breaking of a glass under compression. Note that in the case of the steel rod, the object is deformed without rupturing—that is, without breaking or reducing to pieces. The breaking of the glass, however, is obviously an instance of rupturing.
M ETALS AND E LASTICITY
Metals, in fact, exhibit a number of interesting characteristics with regard to elasticity. With the notable exception of cast iron, metals tend to possess a high degree of ductility, or the ability to be deformed beyond their elastic limits without experiencing rupture. Up to a certain point, the ratio of tension to elongation for metals is high: in other words, a high amount of tension produces only a small amount of elongation. Beyond the elastic limit, however, the ratio is much lower: that is, a relatively small amount of tension produces a high degree of elongation.
Because of their ductility, metals are highly malleable, and, therefore, capable of experiencing
The tension that a material can with stand is called its ultimate strength, and due to their ductile properties, most metals possess a high value of ultimate strength. It is possible, however, for a metal to break down due to repeated cycles of stress that are well below the level necessary to rupture it. This occurs, for instance, in metal machines such as automobile engines that experience a high frequency of stress cycles during operation.
The high ultimate strength of metals, both in tension and compression, makes them useful in a number of structural capacities. Steel has an ultimate compressive strength 25 times as great as concrete, and an ultimate tensile strength 250 times as great. For this reason, when concrete is poured for building bridges or other large structures, steel rods are inserted in the concrete. Called "rebar" (for "reinforced bars"), the steel rods have ridges along them in order to bond more firmly with the concrete as it dries. As a result, reinforced concrete has a much greater ability than plain concrete to with stand tension and compression.
S TEEL B ARS AND R UBBER B ANDS U NDER S TRESS
Metals are crystalline materials, meaning that they are composed of solids called crystals. Particles of crystals are highly ordered, with a definite geometric arrangement repeated in all directions, rather like a honeycomb. (It should be noted, however, that the crystals are not necessarily as uniform in size as the "cells" of the honeycomb.) The atoms of a crystal are arranged in orderly rows, bound to one another by strongly attractive forces that act like microscopic springs.
Just as a spring tends to return to its original length, the highly attractive atoms in a steel bar, when it is stretched, tend to restore it to its original dimensions. Likewise, it takes a great deal of force to pull apart the atoms. When the metal is subjected to plastic deformation, the atoms move
The crystalline structure of metal influences its behavior under high temperatures. Heat causes atoms to vibrate, and in the case of metals, this means that the "springs" are stretching and compressing. As temperature increases, so do the vibrations, thus increasing the average distance between atoms. For this reason, under extremely high temperature, the elastic modulus of the metal decreases, and the metal becomes less resistant to stress.
POLYMERS AND ELASTOMERS.
Rubber is so elastic in behavior that in everyday life, the term "elastic" is most often used for objects containing rubber: the waistband on a pair of underwear, for instance. The long, thin molecules of rubber, which are arranged side-by-side, are called "polymers," and the super-elastic polymers in rubber are called "elastomers." The chemical bonds between the atoms in a polymer are flexible, and tend to rotate, producing kinks along the length of the molecule.
When a piece of rubber is subjected to tension, as, for instance, if one pulls a rubber band by the ends, the kinks and loops in the elastomers straighten. Once the stress is released, however, the elastomers immediately return to their original shape. The more "kinky" the polymers, the higher the elastic modulus, and hence, the more capable the item is of stretching and rebounding.
It is interesting to note that steel and rubber, materials that are obviously quite different, are both useful in part for the same reason: their high elastic modulus when subjected to tension, and their strength under stress. But a rubber band exhibits behaviors under high temperatures that are quite different from that of a metal: when heated, rubber contracts. It does so quite suddenly, in fact, suggesting that the added energy of the heat allows the bonds in the elastomers to begin rotating again, thus restoring the kinked shape of the molecules.
The tensile strength in bone fibers comes from the protein collagen, while the compressive strength is largely due to the presence of inorganic (non-living) salt crystals. It may be hard to believe, but bone actually has an ultimate strength—both in tension and compression—greater than that of concrete!
The ultimate strength of most materials is rendered in factors of 10 8 N/m 2 —that is, 100,000,000 newtons (the metric unit of force) per square meter. For concrete under tensile stress, the ultimate strength is 0.02, whereas for bone, it is 1.3. Under compressive stress, the values are 0.2 and 1.7, respectively. In fact, the ultimate tensile strength of bone is close to that of cast iron (1.7), though the ultimate compressive strength of cast iron (5.5) is much higher than for bone.
Even with these figures, it may be hard to understand how bone can be stronger than concrete, but that is largely because the volume of concrete used in most situations is much greater than the volume of any bone in the body of a human being. By way of explanation, consider a piece of concrete no bigger than a typical bone: under relatively small amounts of stress, it would crumble.
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
Beiser, Arthur. Physics, 5th ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991.
"Dictionary of Metallurgy" Steelmill.com : The Polish Steel Industry Directory (Web site). <http://www.steelmill.com/DICTIONARY/Diction-ary.htm> (April 9, 2001).
"Engineering Processes." eFunda.com (Web site). <http://www.efunda.com/processes/processes_home/process.cfm 003e; (April 9, 2001).
Gibson, Gary. Making Shapes. Illustrated by Tony Kenyon. Brookfield, CT: Copper Beech Books, 1996.
"Glossary of Materials Testing Terms" (Web site). <http://www.instron.com/apps/glossary> (April 9, 2001).
Goodwin, Peter H. Engineering Projects for Young Scientists. New York: Franklin Watts, 1987.
Johnston, Tom. The Forces with You! Illustrated by Sarah Pooley. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1988.