Engineering structures must be designed for an extremely low failure probability such as 10-6, which is beyond the means of direct verification by histogram testing. This is not a problem for brittle or ductile materials because the type of probability distribution of structural strength is fixed and known, making it possible to predict the tail probabilities from the mean and variance. It is a problem, though, for quasibrittle materials for which the type of strength distribution transitions from Gaussian to Weibullian as the structure size increases. These are heterogeneous materials with brittle constituents, characterized by material inhomogeneities that are not negligible compared to the structure size. Examples include concrete, fiber composites, coarse-grained or toughened ceramics, rocks, sea ice, rigid foams and bone, as well as many materials used in nano- and microscale devices. This study presents a unified theory of strength and lifetime for such materials, based on activation energy controlled random jumps of the nano-crack front, and on the nano-macro multiscale transition of tail probabilities. Part I of this study deals with the case of monotonic and sustained (or creep) loading, and Part II with fatigue (or cyclic) loading. On the scale of the representative volume element of material, the probability distribution of strength has a Gaussian core onto which a remote Weibull tail is grafted at failure probability of the order of 10-3. With increasing structure size, the Weibull tail penetrates into the Gaussian core. The probability distribution of static (creep) lifetime is related to the strength distribution by the power law for the static crack growth rate, for which a physical justification is given. The present theory yields a simple relation between the exponent of this law and the Weibull moduli for strength and lifetime. The benefit is that the lifetime distribution can be predicted from short-time tests of the mean size effect on strength and tests of the power law for the crack growth rate. The theory is shown to match closely numerous test data on strength and static lifetime of ceramics and concrete, and explains why their histograms deviate systematically from the straight line in Weibull scale. Although the present unified theory is built on several previous advances, new contributions are here made to address: (i) a crack in a disordered nano-structure (such as that of hydrated Portland cement), (ii) tail probability of a fiber bundle (or parallel coupling) model with softening elements, (iii) convergence of this model to the Gaussian distribution, (iv) the stress-life curve under constant load, and (v) a detailed random walk analysis of crack front jumps in an atomic lattice. The nonlocal behavior is captured in the present theory through the finiteness of the number of links in the weakest-link model, which explains why the mean size effect coincides with that of the previously formulated nonlocal Weibull theory. Brittle structures correspond to the large-size limit of the present theory. An important practical conclusion is that the safety factors for strength and tolerable minimum lifetime for large quasibrittle structures (e.g.; concrete structures and composite airframes or ship hulls, as well as various micro-devices) should be calculated as a function of structure size and geometry.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The theoretical development was partially supported under Grant CMS-0556323 to Northwestern University (NU) from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The applications to concrete and composites were partially supported from the U.S. Department of Transportation through the NU Infrastructure Technology Institute under Grant 20118, and also under Grant N007613 to NU from Boeing, Inc.
- Activation energy
- Probabilistic mechanics
- Size effect
- Strength statistics