Anisotropic crack propagation and deformation in dentin observed by four-dimensional X-ray nano-computed tomography

Xuekun Lu, Marta Peña Fernández, Robert S. Bradley, Shelley D. Rawson, Marie O'Brien, Benjamin Hornberger, Marty Leibowitz, Gianluca Tozzi, Philip J. Withers*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding the cracking behaviour of biological composite materials is of practical importance. This paper presents the first study to track the interplay between crack initiation, microfracture and plastic deformation in three dimensions (3D) as a function of tubule and collagen fibril arrangement in elephant dentin using in situ X-ray nano-computed tomography (nano-CT). A nano-indenter with a conical tip has been used to incrementally indent three test-pieces oriented at 0°, 45° and 70° to the long axis of the tubules (i.e. radial to the tusk). For the 0° sample two significant cracks formed, one of which linked up with microcracks in the axial-radial plane of the tusk originating from the tubules and the other one occurred as a consequence of shear deformation at the tubules. The 70° test-piece was able to bear the greatest loads despite many small cracks forming around the indenter. These were diverted by the microstructure and did not propagate significantly. The 45° test-piece showed intermediate behaviour. In all cases strains obtained by digital volume correlation were well in excess of the yield strain (0.9%), indeed some plastic deformation could even be seen through bending of the tubules. The hoop strains around the conical indenter were anisotropic with the smallest strains correlating with the primary collagen orientation (axial to the tusk) and the largest strains aligned with the hoop direction of the tusk. Statement of Significance: This paper presents the first comprehensive study of the anisotropic nature of microfracture, crack propagation and deformation in elephant dentin using time-lapse X-ray nano-computed tomography. To unravel the interplay of collagen fibrils and local deformation, digital volume correlation (DVC) has been applied to map the local strain field while the crack initiation and propagation is tracked in real time. Our results highlight the intrinsic and extrinsic shielding mechanisms and correlate the crack growth behavior in nature to the service requirement of dentin to resist catastrophic fracture. This is of wide interest not just in terms of understanding dentin fracture but also can extend beyond dentin to other anisotropic structural composite biomaterials such as bone, antler and chitin.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)400-411
Number of pages12
JournalActa Biomaterialia
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2019


  • Crack shielding
  • Digital image correlation (DIC)
  • Indentation fracture
  • Ivory
  • Time-lapse imaging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biomaterials
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Molecular Biology


Dive into the research topics of 'Anisotropic crack propagation and deformation in dentin observed by four-dimensional X-ray nano-computed tomography'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this