Activation energy based extreme value statistics and size effect in brittle and quasibrittle fracture

Zdenek P Bazant*, Sze Dai Pang

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

182 Scopus citations


Because the uncertainty in current empirical safety factors for structural strength is far larger than the relative errors of structural analysis, improvements in statistics offer great promise. One improvement, proposed here, is that, for quasibrittle structures of positive geometry, the understrength factors for structural safety cannot be constant but must be increased with structures size. The statistics of safety factors has so far been generally regarded as independent of mechanics, but further progress requires the cumulative distribution function (cdf) to be derived from the mechanics and physics of failure. To predict failure loads of extremely low probability (such as 10- 6 to 10- 7) on which structural design must be based, the cdf of strength of quasibrittle structures of positive geometry is modelled as a chain (or series coupling) of representative volume elements (RVE), each of which is statistically represented by a hierarchical model consisting of bundles (or parallel couplings) of only two long sub-chains, each of them consisting of sub-bundles of two or three long sub-sub-chains of sub-sub-bundles, etc., until the nano-scale of atomic lattice is reached. Based on Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution of thermal energies of atoms, the cdf of strength of a nano-scale connection is deduced from the stress dependence of the interatomic activation energy barriers, and is expressed as a function of absolute temperature T and stress-duration τ (or loading rate 1 / τ). A salient property of this cdf is a power-law tail of exponent 1. It is shown how the exponent and the length of the power-law tail of cdf of strength is changed by series couplings in chains and by parallel couplings in bundles consisting of elements with either elastic-brittle or elastic-plastic behaviors, bracketing the softening behavior which is more realistic, albeit more difficult to analyze. The power-law tail exponent, which is 1 on the atomistic scale, is raised by the hierarchical statistical model to an exponent of m = 10 to 50, representing the Weibull modulus on the structural scale. Its physical meaning is the minimum number of cuts needed to separate the hierarchical model into two separate parts, which should be equal to the number of dominant cracks needed to break the RVE. Thus, the model indicates the Weibull modulus to be governed by the packing of inhomogeneities within an RVE. On the RVE scale, the model yields a broad core of Gaussian cdf (i.e., error function), onto which a short power-law tail of exponent m is grafted at the failure probability of about 0.0001-0.01. The model predicts how the grafting point moves to higher failure probabilities as structure size increases, and also how the grafted cdf depends on T and τ. The model provides a physical proof that, on a large enough scale (equivalent to at least 500 RVEs), quasibrittle structures must follow Weibull distribution with a zero threshold. The experimental histograms with kinks, which have so far been believed to require the use of a finite threshold, are shown to be fitted much better by the present chain-of-RVEs model. For not too small structures, the model is shown to be essentially a discrete equivalent of the previously developed nonlocal Weibull theory, and to match the Type 1 size effect law previously obtained from this theory by asymptotic matching. The mean stochastic response must agree with the cohesive crack model, crack band model and nonlocal damage models. The chain-of-RVEs model can be verified and calibrated from the mean size effect curve, as well as from the kink locations on experimental strength histograms for sufficiently different specimen sizes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-131
Number of pages41
JournalJournal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2007


  • Failure probability
  • Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics
  • Nonlocal damage
  • Random strength
  • Safety factors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering

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