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Section: Research Program

From statistical physics to continuum mechanics

Whereas numerical methods in nonlinear elasticity are well-developed and reliable, constitutive laws used for rubber in practice are phenomenological and generally not very precise. On the contrary, at the scale of the polymer-chain network, the physics of rubber is very precisely described by statistical physics. The main challenge in this field is to understand how to derive macroscopic constitutive laws for rubber-like materials from statistical physics.

At the continuum level, rubber is modelled by an energy E defined as the integral over a domain D of d of some energy density W depending only locally on the gradient of the deformation u: E(u)=DW(u(x))dx. At the microscopic level (say 100nm), rubber is a network of cross-linked and entangled polymer chains (each chain is made of a sequence of monomers). At this scale the physics of polymer chains is well-understood in terms of statistical mechanics: monomers thermally fluctuate according to the Boltzmann distribution [42]. The associated Hamiltonian of a network is typically given by a contribution of the polymer chains (using self-avoiding random bridges) and a contribution due to steric effects (rubber is packed and monomers are surrounded by an excluded volume). The main challenge is to understand how this statistical physics picture yields rubber elasticity. Treloar assumed in [54] that for a piece of rubber undergoing some macroscopic deformation, the cross-links do not fluctuate and follow the macroscopic deformation, whereas between two cross-links, the chains fluctuate. This is the so-called affine assumption. Treloar's model is in rather good agreement with mechanical experiments in small deformation. In large deformation however, it overestimates the stress. A natural possibility to relax Treloar's model consists in relaxing the affine assumption while keeping the network description, which allows one to distinguish between different rubbers. This can be done by assuming that the deformation of the cross-links minimizes the free energy of the polymer chains, the deformation being fixed at the boundary of the macroscopic domain D. This gives rise to a “variational model". The analysis of the asymptotic behavior of this model as the typical length of a polymer chain vanishes has the same flavor as the homogenization theory of integral functionals in nonlinear elasticity (see [37], [48] in the periodic setting, and [39] in the random setting).

Our aim is to relate qualitatively and quantitatively the (precise but unpractical) statistical physics picture to explicit macroscopic constitutive laws that can be used for practical purposes.

In collaboration with R. Alicandro (Univ. Cassino, Italy) and M. Cicalese (Univ. Munich, Germany), A. Gloria analyzed in [1] the (asymptotic) Γ-convergence of the variational model for rubber, in the case when the polymer chain network is represented by some ergodic random graph. The easiest such graph is the Delaunay tessellation of a point set generated as follows: random hard spheres of some given radius ρ are picked randomly until the domain is jammed (the so-called random parking measure of intensity ρ). With M. Penrose (Univ. Bath, UK), A. Gloria studied this random graph in this framework [5]. With P. Le Tallec (Mechanics department, Ecole polytechnique, France), M. Vidrascu (project-team REO, Inria Paris-Rocquencourt), and A. Gloria introduced and tested in [44] a numerical algorithm to approximate the homogenized energy density, and observed that this model compares well to rubber elasticity qualitatively.

These preliminary results show that the variational model has the potential to explain qualitatively and quantitatively how rubber elasticity emerges from polymer physics. In order to go further and obtain more quantitative results and rigorously justify the model, we have to address several questions of analysis, modelling, scientific computing, inverse problems, and physics.