Indentation-induced subsurface tunneling cracks as a means for evaluating fracture toughness of brittle coatings

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When a plate glued to a compliant substrate is subject to indentation, cracks may initiate from its subsurface due to flexure. Upon increasing the load, the damage develops into a set of tunnel radial cracks which propagate stably under a diminishing stress field. This phenomenon is utilized here to extract fracture toughness KC for brittle materials in the form of thin plates or films. Experiments show that the SIF at the tip of the subsurface radial cracks is well approximated as K ∼ P/c3/2, where P is the indentation load and c the mean length of the crack fragments. Using a transparent substrate, c can be easily determined after unloading, from which KC is found. This simple and economic concept is applied to a wide variety of thin ceramic coatings, yielding toughness data consistent with literature values. Because the tip of the tunneling cracks are well removed from the contact site, the method circumvents certain complications encountered in common top-surface radial cracking techniques such as the effect of plastic deformation, residual stresses and crack extension after unloading. Although the present tests are limited to coating thicknesses >150 μm, it is believed that thinner coatings may be studied as well provided that the indenter radius is kept sufficiently small to insure that subsurface radial cracking dominates over all other failure modes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-26
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Fracture
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2009


  • Brittle coating
  • Channel/tunnel cracks
  • Fracture toughness
  • Indentation
  • Radial cracks
  • Thin-film


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