Continuum mechanics is a branch of mechanics that deals with the analysis of the kinematics and the mechanical behavior of materials modeled as a continuous mass rather than as discrete particles. The French mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy was the 1st to formulate such models in the 19th century, but research in the area continues today.
Modeling an object as a continuum assumes that the substance of the object completely fills the space it occupies. Modeling objects in this way ignores the fact that matter is made of atoms, and so isn’t continuous; however, on length scales much greater than that of inter-atomic distances, such models are highly accurate. Fundamental physical laws such as the conservation of mass, the conservation of momentum, and the conservation of energy may be applied to such models to derive differential equations describing the behavior of such objects, and some information about the particular material studied is added through a constitutive relation.
Continuum mechanics deals with physical properties of solids and fluids which are independent of any particular coordinate system in which they are observed. These physical properties are then represented by tensors, which are mathematical objects that have the required property of being independent of coordinate system. These tensors can be expressed in coordinate systems for computational convenience.
Materials, such as solids, liquids and gases, are composed of molecules separated by “empty” space. On a macroscopic scale, materials have cracks and discontinuities. However, certain physical phenomena can be modeled assuming the materials exist as a continuum, meaning the matter in the body is continuously distributed and fills the entire region of space it occupies. A continuum is a body that can be continually sub-divided into infinitesimal elements with properties being those of the bulk material.
The validity of the continuum assumption may be verified by a theoretical analysis, in which either some clear periodicity is identified or statistical homogeneity and ergodicity of the microstructure exists. More specifically, the continuum hypothesis/assumption hinges on the concepts of a representative volume element (sometimes called “representative elementary volume”) and separation of scales based on the Hill–Mandel condition. This condition provides a link between an experimentalist’s and a theoretician’s viewpoint on constitutive equations (linear and nonlinear elastic/inelastic or coupled fields) as well as a way of spatial and statistical averaging of the microstructure.
When the separation of scales does not hold, or when one wants to establish a continuum of a finer resolution than that of the RVE size, one employs a statistical volume element, which, in turn, leads to random continuum fields. The latter then provide a micromechanics basis for stochastic finite elements (SFE). The levels of SVE and RVE link continuum mechanics to statistical mechanics. The RVE may be assessed only in a limited way via experimental testing: when the constitutive response becomes spatially homogeneous.
Specifically for fluids, the Knudsen number is used to assess to what extent the approximation of continuity can be made.
Continuum mechanics models begin by assigning a region in three dimensional Euclidean space to the material body being modeled. The points within this region are called particles or material points. Different configurations or states of the body correspond to different regions in Euclidean space. The region corresponding to the body’s configuration at time is labeled.
For the mathematical formulation of the model, is also assumed to be twice continuously differentiable, so that differential equations describing the motion may be formulated.
Continuum mechanics deals with deformable bodies, as opposed to rigid bodies. A solid is a deformable body that possesses shear strength, sc. a solid can support shear forces. Fluids, on the other hand, don’t sustain shear forces. For the study of the mechanical behavior of solids and fluids these are assumed to be continuous bodies, which means that the matter fills the entire region of space it occupies, despite the fact that matter is made of atoms, has voids, and is discrete. Therefore, when continuum mechanics refers to a point or particle in a continuous body it does not describe a point in the interatomic space or an atomic particle, rather an idealized part of the body occupying that point.
The distribution of internal contact forces throughout the volume of the body is assumed to be continuous. Therefore, there exists a contact force density or Cauchy traction field that represents this distribution in a particular configuration of the body at a given time. It isn’t a vector field because it depends not only on the position of a particular material point, but also on the local orientation of the surface element as defined by its normal vector.
In continuum mechanics a body is considered stress-free if the only forces present are those inter-atomic forces required to hold the body together and to keep its shape in the absence of all external influences, including gravitational attraction. Stresses generated during manufacture of the body to a specific configuration are also excluded when considering stresses in a body. Therefore, the stresses considered in continuum mechanics are only those produced by deformation of the body, sc. only relative changes in stress are considered, not the absolute values of stress.
In the case of gravitational forces, the intensity of the force depends on, or is proportional to, the mass density of the material, and it is specified in terms of force per unit mass. These two specifications are related through the material density by the equation. Similarly, the intensity of electromagnetic forces depends upon the strength (electric charge) of the electromagnetic field.
In certain situations, not commonly considered in the analysis of the mechanical behavior or materials, it becomes necessary to include two other types of forces: these are body moments and couple stresses. Body moments, or body couples, are moments per unit volume or per unit mass applied to the volume of the body. Couple stresses are moments per unit area applied on a surface. Both are important in the analysis of stress for a polarized dielectric solid under the action of an electric field, materials where the molecular structure is taken into consideration (e.g. bones), solids under the action of an external magnetic field, and the dislocation theory of metals.
Materials that exhibit body couples and couple stresses in addition to moments produced exclusively by forces are called polar materials. Non-polar materials are then those materials with only moments of forces. In the classical branches of continuum mechanics the development of the theory of stresses is based on non-polar materials.
A change in the configuration of a continuum body results in a displacement. The displacement of a body has two components: a rigid-body displacement and a deformation. A rigid-body displacement consists of a simultaneous translation and rotation of the body without changing its shape or size. Deformation implies the change in shape and/or size of the body from an initial or undeformed configuration to a current or deformed configuration.
The motion of a continuum body is a continuous time sequence of displacements. Thus, the material body will occupy different configurations at different times so that a particle occupies a series of points in space which describe a pathline.
It is convenient to identify a reference configuration or initial condition which all subsequent configurations are referenced from. The reference configuration need not be one that the body will ever occupy. Often, the configuration at is considered the reference configuration,. The components of the position vector of a particle, taken with respect to the reference configuration, are called the material or reference coordinates.
When analyzing the deformation or motion of solids, or the flow of fluids, it is necessary to describe the sequence or evolution of configurations throughout time. One description for motion is made in terms of the material or referential coordinates, called material description or Lagrangian description.
In the Lagrangian description the position and physical properties of the particles are described in terms of the material or referential coordinates and time. In this case the reference configuration is the configuration at. An observer standing in the referential frame of reference observes the changes in the position and physical properties as the material body moves in space as time progresses. The results obtained are independent of the choice of initial time and reference configuration,. This description is normally used in solid mechanics.
Physical and kinematic properties, i.e. thermodynamic properties and velocity, which describe or characterize features of the material body, are expressed as continuous functions of position and time, i.e..
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