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Fracture of Carbon Nanotube—Amorphous Carbon Composites: Molecular Modeling



Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are promising candidates for use as reinforcements in next generation structural composite materials because of their extremely high specific stiffness and strength. They cannot, however, be viewed as simple replacements for carbon fibers because there are key differences between these materials in areas such as handling, processing, and matrix design. It is impossible to know for certain that CNT composites will represent a significant advance over carbon fiber composites before these various factors have been optimized, which is an extremely costly and time intensive process. This work attempts to place an upper bound on CNT composite mechanical properties by performing molecular dynamics simulations on idealized model systems with a reactive forcefield that permits modeling of both elastic deformations and fracture. Amorphous carbon (AC) was chosen for the matrix material in this work because of its structural simplicity and physical compatibility with the CNT fillers. It is also much stiffer and stronger than typical engineering polymer matrices. Three different arrangements of CNTs in the simulation cell have been investigated: a single-wall nanotube (SWNT) array, a multi-wall nanotube (MWNT) array, and a SWNT bundle system. The SWNT and MWNT array systems are clearly idealizations, but the SWNT bundle system is a step closer to real systems in which individual tubes aggregate into large assemblies. The effect of chemical crosslinking on composite properties is modeled by adding bonds between the CNTs and AC. The balance between weakening the CNTs and improving fiber-matrix load transfer is explored by systematically varying the extent of crosslinking. It is, of course, impossible to capture the full range of deformation and fracture processes that occur in real materials with even the largest atomistic molecular dynamics simulations. With this limitation in mind, the simulation results reported here provide a plausible upper limit on achievable CNT composite properties and yield some insight on the influence of processing conditions on the mechanical properties of CNT composites.

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