Surface tension and contact with soft elastic solids

Nat Commun. 2013;4:2728. doi: 10.1038/ncomms3728.


The Johnson-Kendall-Roberts theory is the basis of modern contact mechanics. It describes how two deformable objects adhere together, driven by adhesion energy and opposed by elasticity. Here we characterize the indentation of glass particles into soft, silicone substrates using confocal microscopy. We show that, whereas the Johnson-Kendall-Roberts theory holds for particles larger than a critical, elastocapillary lengthscale, it fails for smaller particles. Instead, adhesion of small particles mimics the adsorption of particles at a fluid interface, with a size-independent contact angle between the undeformed surface and the particle given by a generalized version of the Young's law. A simple theory quantitatively captures this behaviour and explains how solid surface tension dominates elasticity for small-scale indentation of soft materials.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't