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8 minutes read
1 March 2019

Difference between linear and nonlinear elastic material

8 minutes read

A few years ago I wrote an article about various nonlinear material models. Since I’m a civil engineer to me the obvious dividing line was: linear = no yielding, nonlinear = yielding. But of course, there is far more than that! Today let’s take a look at a nonlinear elastic material.

Both linear and nonlinear elastic materials will elastically return to an “unloaded” state after loading (without permanent deformations), but the relationship between stress and strain is different in them. It’s linear for linear elastic material (hence the name) and more complex in a nonlinear case.

I think it’s worth taking a look, because confusing nonlinear elastic material and a plastic material may produce some funky outcomes in some analyses.

All the perks of being elastic!

Firstly, let’s take a look at what it means that the material is being elastic. As Captain Obvious often says:

Elasticity is a property that allows a solid body to return to its oryginal shape when the load is removed. Each solid body deforms when loaded (even if very slightly). Solids made from elastic materials will simply return to the oryginal shape when the load is removed.

You can read a bit more on the wiki page for elasticity.

Being elastic is actually a super neat feature! Especially since usually high-ductility is praised (i.e. in steel structures), we take elasticity for granted. This is however not always the case, even though each material has at least a very slight elastic portion of the stress-strain curve.

Linear elastic – the “normal” way!

Without a doubt, the simplest approach to elasticity is linear-elasticity. This is a property that means that the relationship between stress and strain in the material is linear. Before a certain strain level, (sometimes small, sometimes pretty big) materials tend to “start” their strain-stress behavior in a linear way. Often, it’s only the question at which strain level materials stop being linearly elastic. When this “limit strain” is reached material will either break, yield (which means it’s not elastic anymore) or it will start behaving in a nonlinear elastic way.

I think that it’s best to discuss linear elasticity on brittle materials (like glass). Then, the stress-strain relation looks like this:

I think it’s reasonable to say that material with such properties can be modeled using linear elastic parameters. OK, there is this small portion near failure that won’t be accurately captured, but I would still be satisfied with the model. Unless of course, this “small portion” won’t be small anymore. But we will discuss that in a second : )

Linear elastic up to a point!

Of course, there are far more material types. Brittle materials are not the only ones you can describe with linear elasticity. However, for the rest, it might be a bit more tricky! I would say that there is a big group of materials (like metals) that are linear elastics “up to a point” and then… they start behaving in a nonlinear way!

The classical example for me would be structural steel.

Note that it has a very long linear elastic part. It ends slightly before yielding starts. Of course, it is often assumed that it’s linear elastic up to yielding. To me, it’s accurate “enough”! This means that I use the linear elastic property until the material reaches the yield limit. This is a pretty significant portion of the stress-strain curve. This means that steel is a nice material to model with linear elasticity, as long as you don’t reach strains (and stresses) that would cause yielding. Things start to be more complicated when you actually reach yielding stress…

…but I don’t want to go into yielding today. This is a completely different story! No worries though. You can learn plenty about yielding on the blog:

Yielding related topics:

Not linear… but still elastic!

This is a fun category. I would include plastics and foams here. As I mentioned before, steel has a small section “just before yielding” where it’s not linearly elastic anymore. But this “spot” is so small that we can easily ignore it. A similar thing happens with plastics, but there, the zone is so big you just can’t “ignore it”!

You could argue that in plastics there is no “linear elastic” part but of course, it’s only the problem of accuracy. After all plastic parts are analyzed using linear elastic parameters as well. It’s clear, that the nonlinear elastic material should be used, but instead, there are two other possibilities: tangent and secant rigidity.

What you do in this case is pretty simple. You can either assume that at the very beginning the material stiffness is “ok”. In such a case you will use tangent stiffness. However, if you expect that the strains will be high (i.e. close to the start of yielding), then “tangent” stiffness isn’t very accurate. Instead, you could use the secant stiffness. This one is better for higher strains but shows too soft material behavior beforehand.

All in all both approaches aren’t great, but sometimes they may be sufficient. This is the point where actually using a nonlinear elastic material model may come in handy. Similar to steel discussed before, yielding will take place here as well, making the material model pretty interesting… assuming you want to go so far with stresses and strains in your design.

50 shades of nonlinear elastic

The previous model may look very complex, but that’s not all. There is another material group I want to mention here, and those would be foams. There are more interesting, mostly because certain types of foam never yield. This means that their entire behavior is elastic.

But of course, the behavior is highly nonlinear… otherwise where would be the fun in that, right?

In the above, using tangent or secant stiffness doesn’t look appealing right? I mean sure, if you are somewhere pretty close to the beginning, maybe there is an argument to be made… but it wouldn’t be the best one!

But there is also one additional behavior I want to point out to. Plastics have it as well, but it looks nicer on this chart, so let’s make a small update!

You see, the foam is elastic. It means that when compressed and then released, will return to its original shape without any permanent deformations. But it’s not the same “elastic” as in the case of the elastic range for steel element. When the load is taken away from a steel member loaded within the elastic range it behaves differently!

For the steel member, it just gets back following the same stress-strain curve and it happens instantly. Like it would be “eager” to be back in the original shape. Foam is “lazy”. It will slowly get back to its original shape. Not only it doesn’t happen instantly, but it also doesn’t follow the loading stress-strain curve! Such behavior is called viscoelasticity.

You can model it in FEA if you really want to, but it’s rather complex stuff.

Hyperelastic things

If you would want to analyze rubber or maybe elastomers the best way to approach those is with the hyperelastic material.

There are several material models like Mooney-Rivlin, Ogden, or Arruda-Boyce.

Sadly I won’t be able to help you out here – this is completely not what I do at my work or have to experience with, and I don’t really want to tell you things I’m not sure about. I promised myself that one day I will take a look at those and learn about them… but there was always something with the higher priority on my to-learn list.

If I ever learn more, I will be more than happy to get back here and add something interesting : )

If you happen to have practical experience with those materials let me know – I will gladly host you on the blog!

Common questions about elastic material:

Is a linear elastic model enough?

This is a pretty difficult question to answer. In general… if you have doubts, most likely no!

I would say this: if you know the stress-strain curve for your material you can easily judge if the linear approximation is sufficient. In many cases, it may be. I mean, you don’t always need to have a “perfect” answer, and a simple approximation is often enough. It’s just good to be aware of what you are “missing” in simplifying the problem to the linear elastic response.

You may want to check out my Nonlinear Material Flow Chart that will help you decide will linear elastic material model is enough for your analysis!

Where to get the material parameters from?

This is a good one. It’s not simple really. I mean you can easily google for Young Modulus or yield strength of the material of interest… but beyond that things are more difficult to come by. Not to mention that there is also an issue of “trust” when data from the internet has to be used.

For steel, you can always check DNV – RP – C208 there are some really interesting data for steel there. But for other materials, sadly I don’t know. If you have any interesting reference, let us know in the comments!

Author: Łukasz Skotny Ph.D.

I have over 10 years of practical FEA experience (I'm running my own Engineering Consultancy), and I've been an academic teacher for a decade. Here, I gladly share my engineering knowledge through courses, and on the blog!

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    Comments (18)

    Simon Ashby - 2020-11-26 14:22:11

    Away from simple coupon tests, intuitively it seems that geometric form will affect an overall structure's effective modulus. Some structures will be more 'flexible' than others, but will need room to deflect safely.
    Are there any well-known geometries that inherently present a rapidly rising modulus as stress is increased (before yield point)?
    This is important because it would make a structural element better at storing peak energy and returning it, without needing the clearance for a linearly deflecting elastic structure.
    Any ideas?

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2020-11-27 12:53:05

    Hey Simon!

    I'm not sure if I fully understand your comment. What do you mean by an "effective modulus" of the structure? I assume this is not about Young Modulus, but rather something like Deformation to load ratio of the entire structure (like equilibrium path). Do I read your comment correctly?
    If this is what you are after then many things that enter a membrane stress display such effects. As you increase the load, deformation per load value (let's say mm of deformations per 100kN applied) get smaller and smaller the more load you have - this is a geometric "thing" - you know like in a laundry string :)

    But I muss confess I'm not sure if I understood your question well - so if I missed your point, let me know :)

    Daniel - 2020-07-10 21:46:11

    You should to write a book about this.

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2020-07-12 19:05:20

    Hey Daniel!

    Thanks! I'm actually working on a nonlinear FEA book/course :) You can learn more here: https://enterfea.com/nonlinear-fea-project/

    All the best!

    Mary - 2020-01-17 05:36:45

    I am modeling CFRP sheet in ABAQUS and define it as perfectly linear elastic material. The inputs are E and nu. With out any additional data, does that mean the material will not fail?

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2020-01-18 09:35:02


    As far as I understand your question Mary, yes - the material will not fail. If you only model linear material... it's linear to eternity. Even though at some point you ill reach stresses and strains clearly too high for your material - FEA will have no idea about that!

    All the best

    Swami Mhaske - 2019-08-22 06:08:15

    Hello Lukasz,
    I would like to thank you for sharing such useful learnings and enlightening us on many of the confusing topics. I really appreciate your efforts to educate people on FEA in a lucid way. I have a doubt on material data for plastic materials like PP , ABS etc. How to define yield and the young's modulus ? How result accuracy depend on young's modulus ?
    Thank You

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2019-08-22 06:45:08

    Hey Swami!

    Plastics are funny, as the Young Modulus isn't all that constant. Usually, people use "secant" Young Modulus - you know like I marked above in the text. I don't run plastic analysis so I don't really have industrial experience here.
    And yes, outcomes depend on the Young Modulus.

    All the best

    kavi - 2019-08-07 05:48:36

    By what materials car dashboards are made ?

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2019-08-07 06:44:52

    I would say that some sort of plastics, but I don't work in automotive so it's just a guess. Plus this most likely depends on the car (I think that the fancy expensive types may have pretty insane materials there).

    All the best

    Henry Hojnacki - 2019-04-06 15:07:40

    Thanks for the overview Lukasz. I work with foam materials everyday. In Abaqus *HYPERELASTIC works well for static applications. We see even more interesting behavior when we investigate loading at different speeds. There is a very large visco-elastic effect with foams. We see significant differences in the loading curves even at such small speeds as 50 mm/minute versus 100 mm/minute.

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2019-04-07 10:24:27

    Wow Henry! This is crazy. I would never assume that there would be differences between 50 and 100mm/min. Crazy stuff!

    It looks to me like you have a pretty interesting job :)

    All the best

    Patrick - 2019-04-04 14:50:31

    Another useful and reliable source for materials is the MMPDS standard. It is used for aerospace analyses and contains data on steel, aluminium, titanium, magnesium, and then some more "metallic materials".

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2019-04-04 15:59:34

    Thanks for the reference Patrick!

    All the best

    Ali - 2019-03-31 20:46:44

    Thank you for this valuable illustration.

    I have a question concerning CFRP fabrics. Mostly, it is being consider as linear elastic material but during test, the behaviour tends to be non-linear elastic. Which one is the most precise?

    Thank you

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2019-04-01 04:12:16

    I have never read any CFRP test results report, so I'm foggy here.

    However, if tests show nonlinear elastic that... it's nonlinear elastic. That is the precise approach I would say.
    The only question would be how much "you lose" with a simplified linear approach...

    All the best

    Adam - 2019-04-03 13:48:25

    @Ali from my recent tests, cfrp behaves linear for unidirectional coupon under tensile load along direction of fibers. When off-axis samples are tested, highest nonlinear effect is observed for 45 degrees aligment. Stress-strain curve "bends slightly to the right" but can be aproximated with straight line. That refers only to unidirectional layer, when stackup is considered results may not be obvious.

    Łukasz Skotny Ph.D. - 2019-04-03 14:28:15

    Awesome stuff Adam, thanks for writing!


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      Your personal data administrator is Enterfea Łukasz Skotny, Skrzydlata 1/7, 54-129 Wrocław/POLAND, Email. By subscribing to the newsletter that includes marketing messages you consent to your personal data processing in accordance with this privacy policy