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Fracture path in brittle thin sheets: a unifying review on tearing


We review several studies of crack path in brittle thin sheets where large out of plane bending is involved. Fracture path are observed to be very reproducible. We present a unifying framework based on an energetic point of view. A simplified description, where the sheet is considered to behave as an inextensible fabric, captures important features of experiments: the fact that fracture path seems to obey geometry. We quantify the possible effects of additional bending and stretching terms, and estimate the validity of the model.

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  1. See Villermaux and Vandenberghe (2013) for a review of recent studies on dynamic tearing of brittle thin sheets.

  2. However we should keep in mind that \(G_c\) is not a well defined material property, and may depend on the details of the plastic flow in the process zone: fracture toughness usually depends on the nature of the loading (mode mixity).

  3. Because of inherent assumption in the kinematics of Kirchhoff equations the shear stresses diverge like \(r^{-3/2}\) instead of \(r^{-1/2}\), a feature which can be corrected within a Timoshenko–Reissner plate theory (Bui 1978; Zehnder and Viz 2005). But these effects are only relevant at a distance to the tip inferior to the thickness.

  4. This argument defined the shape of Eiffel’s tower (Eiffel 1900) for a maximum rigidity against distributed wind loading.

  5. We find again the elasto-capillary lengthscale (Bico et al. 2004; Roman and Bico 2010) over which surface and bending energies equilibrate.

  6. As the slenderness ratio \(e=t/L\) vanishes, 3D-elasticity converges towards the inextensible, infinitely bendable model if the normalized loading \(\eta =F/Etw\) follows \(\eta \sim e\). This falls in the conditions (2), which can be rewritten into \(1\gg \eta \gg e^2\).

  7. The experimental flap shapes are more complex because converging effects due to finite bending rigidity (Sect. 4.1) has to be considered, and may dominate over the diverging terms for weak substrate curvature, strong adhesion, or thick sheets (Kruglova et al. 2011).

  8. Things are more complex if there are several non-connected cuts.

  9. An argument based on the same principle was developed in Atkins (2007) for the case of a cylindrical rigid tool. With the additional assumption that the crack tip was assumed to be located on a circle centered on the tip but with larger radius. Because no elastic energy was attributed to the sheet, the ratio \(dz/ds\) was minimized to obtain the angular velocity of the crack, and therefore the crack path.

    Fig. 11
    figure 11

    (left) The crack path convex hull defines “flaps” (white area) which easily bend around the tool. If the tool were to advance by \(dz\) and cross the boundary of the convex hull (in orange), it would generate stretching in the inextensible film. Instead the crack tip will propagate (right) by a distance \(ds\) so that the pushed front (orange boundary) advances and the tool still belongs to the flap region (white). The direction of propagation for the crack that minimize \(ds/dz\) is perpendicular to the pushed front

  10. Interactive software written by B.Audoly, Institut Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, CNRS/UPMC, 2003.

  11. It can be interpreted as a size around the crack tip where strains become large.

  12. But condition (24) is more restrictive, the condition on the length of the flap depends on its width.

  13. An additional condition ensures that curvature in folds is localized on an area much smaller than the system size.


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I thank K. Ravichandar for his suggestions and comments. I also thank José Bico and Basile Audoly for invaluable help.

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Correspondence to Benoît Roman.



Peeling an elastica

We consider an inextensible rod, with a tangent having an angle \(\theta \) at the point of curvilinear abscissa \(s\), subject to a horizontal force \(F\) (see Fig. 23). The torque balance on an element with size \(ds\) reads \(dM/ds + F \sin \theta =0\), where the constitutive relation \(M=Bd\theta /ds\) can be used. Here the bending rigidity is \(B=Et^3/12(1-\nu ^{2})\), where \(t\) is the thickness of the sheet, \(E\) its Young modulus, and \(\nu \) Poisson’s ratio.

Fig. 23
figure 23

A portion of the shape of a peeled elastica with an angle \(\phi =\pi \) (left) leads to an angle \(\phi \) when rotated (right)

Finally, the elastica equation is Landau and Lifshitz (1967), Love (1944)

$$\begin{aligned} B \ddot{\theta }+\frac{F}{w} \sin \theta =0 \end{aligned}$$

with the boundary conditions \(\theta (0)=0\), and a force \(F\), but no torque applied at \(s=L\), \(\dot{\theta }(L)=0\). We can expect the flap to be curved only on a localized region near the clamped condition \(s=0\). What is the size of this region? Dimensional analysis directly shows that the only length-scale left in the problem is \(\sqrt{Bw/F},\) so that the flap shapes for different loading and rigidity will all be similar, up to a simple scaling factor, as long as they are long compared to this radius of curvature, \(L\gg \sqrt{Bw/F}.\) The elastic energy per unit width which only depends on \(B\) and \(F/w\) can only be written as \(E_{el}/w = a \sqrt{FB/w}\).

These results are also found by estimating the radius of curvature of the fold \(R\) from a torque balance. The torque \(Bw/R \sim FR\) is produced by force \(F\) with a lever arm of the order of \(R\). Because \(1/R \sim \sqrt{ F/Bw}\), we also find that \(E_{el} \sim Bw/R \sim \sqrt{BFw}.\) We also note that the bending energy density scales like \(F/w.\)

In fact these quick arguments can be made exactly because an explicit solution is available in the case where \(L=\infty \): we first normalize all distances by the typical length \(\sqrt{Bw/F}\) and find \(\ddot{\theta }+ \sin \theta =0\). Here we look for the solution where with the condition \(\theta (0)=0, \theta (\infty )=\pi , \dot{\theta }(\infty )=0.\) These solutions are the same as the 2D meniscus of a liquid under gravity and surface tension (Roman et al.).

A first integral of this equation gives \(\dot{\theta }^2 /2 = 1+\cos \theta \), using the boundary conditions at \(s=\infty \). If we keep \(\dot{\theta }>0\), this can be rewritten into \(\dot{\theta }= 2\cos \theta /2,\) which can be integrated into

$$\begin{aligned} \sin (\theta /2) = \tanh (s). \end{aligned}$$

This implicit solution with \(s \in [0,\infty ]\) corresponds to a peeling angle \(\phi =\pi \). But for a different peeling angle \(\phi \), the solution is simply a rotated portion of the same solution \(s \in [s_0, \infty ]\), where \(\tanh (s_0)= \sin (\pi /2-\phi /2)=\cos (\phi /2)\), as seen in Fig. 23.

We compute the nondimensional elastic energy using these solutions:

$$\begin{aligned} E_{el}/\sqrt{FBw}&= \int \limits _{s_0}^\infty \dot{\theta }^2/2 ds = 2 \int \limits _{s_0}^\infty \cos ^2(\theta /2)\\ ds&= 2 [\tanh (s)]_{s_0}^\infty = 2[1-\cos (\phi /2)]. \end{aligned}$$

Finally we obtain

$$\begin{aligned} E_{el} = 2 \sqrt{FBw}[1-\cos (\phi /2)] \end{aligned}$$

Another estimate gives in \(\int \dot{\theta }^2 /2 ds = \int (1+\cos \theta ) ds = l-\delta \), where \(l\) and \(\delta \) are the distances on Fig. 23. In dimensional terms, we find

$$\begin{aligned} E_{el} = F(l-\delta ), \end{aligned}$$

which shows that

$$\begin{aligned} l-\delta = 2\sqrt{Bw/F} [1-\cos (\phi /2)] \end{aligned}$$


$$\begin{aligned} E_{el}= \frac{4 Bw}{(l-\delta )}[1-\cos (\phi /2) ]^2 \end{aligned}$$

Yet another interesting quantity is based on direct integration, which shows that \( h= \int \sin \theta = -[\dot{\theta }]_{s_0}^\infty = 2\cos (\theta (0))=2\sin (\phi /2)\). In dimensional form, this means that

$$\begin{aligned} h = 2 \sqrt{Bw/F}\sin (\phi /2) = (l-\delta )\frac{\sin (\phi /2)}{1-\cos (\phi /2)} \end{aligned}$$

and to the elastic energy

$$\begin{aligned} E_{el} = \frac{ 4Bw}{h} [1-\cos (\phi /2)] \sin (\phi /2) \end{aligned}$$

Why does the crack loose memory (almost) instantaneously?

In the pulling configuration of pulling on an adhering sheet (Fig. 16), the past history of the crack only enters the problem through the shape of the flap. We consider that the flap continues to have a cylindrical shape invariant in the \(z\) direction. The elastic energy reads

$$\begin{aligned} E_{el}= \frac{B}{2}\int \limits _{0}^{\infty } w(u) \kappa ^2(u) du \end{aligned}$$

where \(u\) is the curvilinear abscissa along the fold, and the function \(\kappa (.)\) is the curvature of the fold, an universal function that depends on \((l-\delta )^{-1}\).  As the cracks propagate by \(\delta s\), this energy varies for two reasons: the profile \(w(l)\) is modified because the origin of the fold has advanced by \(\delta l\), and the curvature profile is modified (because \(l-\delta \) has changed).

$$\begin{aligned} \delta E_{el}&= \frac{B}{2}\int \limits _{0}^{\infty } [ w(u+\delta l)-w(u)]\kappa ^2(u) du \\&\quad + \frac{B}{2}\int \limits _{0}^{\infty } w(u) \delta [\kappa ^2(u)] du \end{aligned}$$

The key point is that the curvature profile is localized on a small region with size \(r\) comparable to \(l-\delta .\) If we assume that on this small lengthscale, \(w(u+\delta l)-w(u)\) can be replaced by \(\delta l (dw/du)_{u=0} \) and \(w(u)\sim w(0)\), we get

$$\begin{aligned} \delta E_{el}&= \frac{dw}{du}\Bigg )_{u=0} \!\! \!\! \delta l \frac{B}{2} \int \limits _{0}^{\infty } \kappa ^2(u) du\\&\quad + w(0) \frac{B}{2}\delta \left[ \int \limits _{0}^{\infty } \kappa ^2(u)du \right] \end{aligned}$$

In the first term we recognize the elastic energy of a slice of fold with unit width, multiplied by the the variation \(\delta w\). Because of the invariance of the fold in direction \(z\), this is exactly

$$\begin{aligned} d w \frac{\partial E_{el} }{\partial w } \Bigg )_{(l-\delta )} \end{aligned}$$

whereas the second term is in fact a derivative where the width \(w=w(0)\) is held constant:

$$\begin{aligned} \frac{\partial E_{el} }{\partial (l-\delta )} \Bigg )_{w} d (l-\delta ) \end{aligned}$$

so that we recover the equations of Sect. 4.1

$$\begin{aligned} dE_{el}= \frac{\partial E_{el} }{\partial (l-\delta )} \Bigg )_{w} d (l-\delta ) + d w \frac{\partial E_{el} }{\partial w } \Bigg )_{(l-\delta )}. \end{aligned}$$

When inserted in Griffith’s criterion, all the quantities depend on \(w\) and \(dw/ds\), so that finally the equation of evolution of the width can only be a first order equation of the type \(dw/ds = \mathcal{F} (w)\): the evolution of the inter-crack distance \(w\) only depends on its actual value, not on the past.

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Roman, B. Fracture path in brittle thin sheets: a unifying review on tearing. Int J Fract 182, 209–237 (2013).

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  • Plate mechanics
  • Crack path
  • Thin sheets