A theory of plasticity for carbon nanotube reinforced composites

Pallab Barai, George J. Weng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

178 Scopus citations


Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) possess exceptional mechanical properties, and when introduced into a metal matrix, it could significantly improve the elastic stiffness and plastic strength of the nanocomposite. But current processing techniques often lead to an agglomerated state for the CNTs, and the pristine CNT surface may not be able to fully transfer the load at the interface. These two conditions could have a significant impact on its strengthening capability. In this article we develop a two-scale micromechanical model to analyze the effect of CNT agglomeration and interface condition on the plastic strength of CNT/metal composites. The large scale involves the CNT-free matrix and the clustered CNT/matrix inclusions, and the small scale addresses the property of these clustered inclusions, each containing the randomly oriented, transversely isotropic CNTs and the matrix. In this development the concept of secant moduli and a field fluctuation technique have been adopted. The outcome is an explicit set of formulae that allows one to calculate the overall stress-strain relations of the CNT nanocomposite. It is shown that CNTs are indeed a very effective strengthening agent, but CNT agglomeration and imperfect interface condition can seriously reduce the effective stiffness and elastoplastic strength. The developed theory has also been applied to examine the size (diameter) effect of CNTs on the elastic and elastoplastic response of the composites, and it was found that, with a perfect interface contact, decreasing the CNT radius would enhance the overall stiffness and plastic strength, but with an imperfect interface the size effect is reversed. A comparison of the theory with some experiments on the CNT/Cu nanocomposite serves to verify the applicability of the theory, and it also points to the urgent need of eliminating all CNT agglomeration and improving the interface condition if the full potential of CNT reinforcement is to be realized.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)539-559
Number of pages21
JournalInternational journal of plasticity
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Materials Science(all)
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering


  • CNT agglomeration and interface effects
  • Carbon nanotubes
  • Nanocomposites
  • Plasticity
  • Two-scale homogenization


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