Application of Fracture Mechanics Concepts to Hierarchical Biomechanics of Bone and Bone-like Materials

  • Huajian Gao


Fracture mechanics concepts are applied to gain some understanding of the hierarchical nanocomposite structures of hard biological tissues such as bone, tooth and shells. At the most elementary level of structural hierarchy, bone and bone-like materials exhibit a generic structure on the nanometer length scale consisting of hard mineral platelets arranged in a parallel staggered pattern in a soft protein matrix. The discussions in this paper are organized around the following questions: (1) The length scale question: why is nanoscale important to biological materials? (2) The stiffness question: how does nature create a stiff composite containing a high volume fraction of a soft material? (3) The toughness question: how does nature build a tough composite containing a high volume fraction of a brittle material? (4) The strength question: how does nature balance the widely different strengths of protein and mineral? (5) The optimization question: Can the generic nanostructure of bone and bone-like materials be understood from a structural optimization point of view? If so, what is being optimized? What is the objective function? (6) The buckling question: how does nature prevent the slender mineral platelets in bone from buckling under compression? (7) The hierarchy question: why does nature always design hierarchical structures? What is the role of structural hierarchy? A complete analysis of these questions taking into account the full biological complexities is far beyond the scope of this paper. The intention here is only to illustrate some of the basic mechanical design principles of bone-like materials using simple analytical and numerical models. With this objective in mind, the length scale question is addressed based on the principle of flaw tolerance which, in analogy with related concepts in fracture mechanics, indicates that the nanometer size makes the normally brittle mineral crystals insensitive to cracks-like flaws. Below a critical size on the nanometer length scale, the mineral crystals fail no longer by propagation of pre-existing cracks, but by uniform rupture near their limiting strength. The robust design of bone-like materials against brittle fracture provides an interesting analogy between Darwinian competition for survivability and engineering design for notch insensitivity. The follow-up analysis with respect to the questions on stiffness, strength, toughness, stability and optimization of the biological nanostructure provides further insights into the basic design principles of bone and bone-like materials. The staggered nanostructure is shown to be an optimized structure with the hard mineral crystals providing structural rigidity and the soft protein matrix dissipating fracture energy. Finally, the question on structural hierarchy is discussed via a model hierarchical material consisting of multiple levels of self-similar composite structures mimicking the nanostructure of bone. We show that the resulting “fractal bone”, a model hierarchical material with different properties at different length scales, can be designed to tolerate crack-like flaws of multiple length scales.


Biological materials bone buckling flaw tolerance fracture hierarchical materials nacre size effects stiffness strength structural optimization toughness 


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Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Max Planck Institute for Metals ResearchStuttgartGermany
  2. 2.Division of EngineeringBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA

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