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The problem of toughening heterogeneous materials with a stiff matrix and compliant inclusions is investigated through numerical simulations and experiments. Specifically, the problem of optimizing a combination of effective toughness and effective elastic modulus in the context of a square array of compliant inclusions in a stiff matrix is explored. Crack propagation in the heterogeneous material is simulated using a variational phase-field approach. It is found that the crack can meander between or get attracted to and trapped in the inclusions. Composite specimens with a stiff matrix and compliant circular inclusions were 3D printed, and their fracture toughness was measured using a specially designed loading fixture. The experimental results show agreement with the numerical predictions by demonstrating the attraction and trapping of cracks in the inclusions. This study demonstrates the potential for significant enhancement of toughness through elastic compliance contrast between the matrix and the inclusion without notably compromising the effective elastic modulus of the composite material.

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Journal of Applied Mechanics, Transactions ASME