On the impact of capillarity for strength at the nanoscale


The interior of nanoscale crystals experiences stress that compensates for the capillary forces and that can be large, in the order of 1 GPa. Various studies have speculated on whether and how this surface-induced stress affects the stability and plasticity of small crystals. Yet, experiments have so far failed to discriminate between the surface contribution and other, bulk-related size effects. To clarify the issue, here we study the variation of the flow stress of a nanomaterial while distinctly different variations of the two capillary parameters, surface tension, and surface stress, are imposed under control of an applied electric potential. Our theory qualifies the suggested impact of surface stress as not forceful and instead predicts a significant contribution of the surface energy, as measured by the surface tension. The predictions for the combined potential-dependence and size-dependence of the flow stress are quantitatively supported by the experiment. Previous suggestions, favoring the surface stress as the relevant capillary parameter, are not consistent with our experiment.
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