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Atomic and vibrational origins of mechanical toughness in bioactive cement during settingBioactive glass ionomer cements (GICs) have been in widespread use for ~40 years in dentistry and medicine. However, these composites fall short of the toughness needed for permanent implants. Significant impediment to improvement has been the requisite use of conventional destructive mechanical testing, which is necessarily retrospective. Here we show quantitatively, through the novel use of calorimetry, terahertz (THz) spectroscopy and neutron scattering, how GIC’s developing fracture toughness during setting is related to interfacial THz dynamics, changing atomic cohesion and fluctuating interfacial configurations. Contrary to convention, we find setting is non-monotonic, characterized by abrupt features not previously detected, including a glass–polymer coupling point, an early setting point, where decreasing toughness unexpectedly recovers, followed by stress-induced weakening of interfaces. Subsequently, toughness declines asymptotically to long-term fracture test values. We expect the insight afforded by these in situ non-destructive techniques will assist in raising understanding of the setting mechanisms and associated dynamics of cementitious materials.