Probing the limits of metal plasticity with molecular dynamics simulations
Ordinarily, the strength and plasticity properties of a metal are defined by dislocations—line defects in the crystal lattice whose motion results in material slippage along lattice planes1. Dislocation dynamics models are usually used as mesoscale proxies for true atomistic dynamics, which are computationally expensive to perform routinely2. However, atomistic simulations accurately capture every possible mechanism of material response, resolving every “jiggle and wiggle”3 of atomic motion, whereas dislocation dynamics models do not. Here we present fully dynamic atomistic simulations of bulk single-crystal plasticity in the body-centred-cubic metal tantalum. Our goal is to quantify the conditions under which the limits of dislocation-mediated plasticity are reached and to understand what happens to the metal beyond any such limit. In our simulations, the metal is compressed at ultrahigh strain rates along its  crystal axis under conditions of constant pressure, temperature and strain rate. To address the complexity of crystal plasticity processes on the length scales (85–340 nm) and timescales (1 ns–1μs) that we examine, we use recently developed methods of in situ computational microscopy4,5 to recast the enormous amount of transient trajectory data generated in our simulations into a form that can be analysed by a human. Our simulations predict that, on reaching certain limiting conditions of strain, dislocations alone can no longer relieve mechanical loads; instead, another mechanism, known as deformation twinning (the sudden re-orientation of the crystal lattice6), takes over as the dominant mode of dynamic response. Below this limit, the metal assumes a strain-path-independent steady state of plastic flow in which the flow stress and the dislocation density remain constant as long as the conditions of straining thereafter remain unchanged. In this distinct state, tantalum flows like a viscous fluid while retaining its crystal lattice and remaining a strong and stiff metal.
Publisher URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature23472