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Mechanics and force transmission in soft composites of rods in elastic gels

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DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevE.84.061906
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We report detailed theoretical investigations of the micro-mechanics and bulk elastic properties of composites consisting of randomly distributed stiff fibers embedded in an elastic matrix in two and three dimensions. Recent experiments published in Physical Review Letters [102, 188303 (2009)] have suggested that the inclusion of stiff microtubules in a softer, nearly incompressible biopolymer matrix can lead to emergent compressibility. This can be understood in terms of the enhancement of the compressibility of the composite relative to its shear compliance as a result of the addition of stiff rod-like inclusions. We show that the Poisson's ratio $\nu$ of such a composite evolves with increasing rod density towards a particular value, or {\em fixed point}, independent of the material properties of the matrix, so long as it has a finite initial compressibility. This fixed point is $\nu=1/4$ in three dimensions and $\nu=1/3$ in two dimensions. Our results suggest an important role for stiff filaments such as microtubules and stress fibers in cell mechanics. At the same time, our work has a wider elasticity context, with potential applications to composite elastic media with a wide separation of scales in stiffness of its constituents such as carbon nanotube-polymer composites, which have been shown to have highly tunable mechanics.

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