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Deformation mechanism refers to the various processes occurring at micro-scale that are responsible for changes in a material's internal structure, shape and volume. The process involves planar discontinuity and/or displacement of atoms from their original position within the crystal lattice system. These small changes are preserved in various microstructures of materials such as rocks, metals and plastics, and can be studied in depth using optical or digital microscopy.
Deformation mechanisms is commonly characterized as brittle, ductile, and brittle-ductile. The driving mechanism responsible is a subject of interplay between internal (e.g composition, grain size and lattice-preferred orientation) and external (e.g temperature and fluid pressure) factors. These mechanisms produce a range of micro-structures studied in rocks to constrain the conditions, rheology, dynamics, and motions of tectonic events. More than one mechanism may be active under a given set of conditions and some mechanisms can develop independently. Detailed microstructures analysis can be used to define the conditions and timing under which individual deformation mechanisms dominate for some materials. Common deformation mechanisms processes subdivisions are:
Fracturing is a brittle deformation process that creates permanent linear breaks, that are not accompanied by displacement within materials. These linear breaks or openings can be independent or interconnected. For fracturing to occur, the ultimate strength of the materials need to be exceeded to a point where the material ruptures. Rupturing is aided by the accumulations of high differential stress (the difference between the maximum and minimum stress acting on the object). Most fracture grow into faults. However, the term fault is only used when the fracture plane accommodate some degree of movement. Fracturing can happen across all scales, from microfractures to macroscopic fractures and joints in the rocks.
Cataclasis is a non-elastic brittle mechanism that operates under low to moderate homologous temperatures, low confining pressure and relatively high strain rates. It occurs only above a certain differential stress level, which is dependent on fluid pressure and temperature. Cataclasis accommodates the fracture and crushing of grains, causing grain size reduction, along with frictional sliding on grain boundaries and rigid body grain rotation. Intense cataclasis occurs in thin zones along slip or fault surfaces where extreme grain size reduction occurs. In rocks, cataclasis forms a cohesive and fine-grained fault rock called cataclasite. Cataclasitic flow occurs during shearing when a rock deform by microfracturing and frictional sliding where tiny fractures (microcracks), and associated rock fragments move past each other. Cataclastic flow usually occurs at diagenetic to low-grade metamorphic conditions. However, this depends on the mineralogy of the material and the extent of pore fluid pressure. Cataclastic flow is generally unstable and will terminate by the localization of deformation into slip on fault planes.
Grain boundary sliding is a plastic deformation mechanism where crystals can slide past each other without friction and without creating significant voids as a result of diffusion. The deformation process associated with this mechanism is referred to as granular flow. The absence of voids results from solid-state diffusive mass transfer, locally enhanced crystal plastic deformation, or solution and precipitation of a grain boundary fluid. This mechanism operates at a low strain rate produced by neighbor switching. Grain boundary sliding is grain size and temperature-dependent. It is favored by high temperatures and the presence of very fine-grained aggregates where diffusion paths are relatively short. Large strains operating in this mechanism don't result in the development of a lattice preferred orientation or any appreciable internal deformation of the grains, except at the grain boundary to accommodate the grain sliding; this process is called superplastic deformation.
In this group of mechanisms, the strain is accommodated by migration of vacancies in crystallographic lattice. This results in a change in crystal shape involving the transfer of mass by diffusion. These migrations are oriented towards sites of maximum stress and are limited by the grain boundaries; which conditions a crystallographic shape fabric or strain. The result is a more perfect crystal. This process is grain-size sensitive and occurs at low strain rates or very high temperatures, and is accommodated by migration of lattice defects from areas of low to those of high compressive stress. The main mechanisms of diffusive mass transfer are Nabarro-Herring creep, Coble creep, and pressure solution.
Nabarro-herring creep, or volume diffusion, acts at high homologous temperatures and is grain size dependent with the strain-rate inversely proportional to the square of the grain size (creep rate decreases as the grain size increases). During Nabarro-Herring creep, the diffusion of vacancies occurs through the crystal lattice [microtectonics], which causes grains to elongate along the stress axis. Nabarro-Herring creep has a weak stress dependence.
Coble creep, or grain-boundary diffusion, is the diffusion of vacancies occurs along grain-boundaries to elongate the grains along the stress axis [microtectonics]. Coble creep has a stronger grain-size dependence than Nabarro-Herring creep, and occurs at lower temperatures while remaining temperature dependent. It play a more important role than Nabarro-Herring creep and is more important in the deformation of the plastic crust.
In this group of mechanisms, the strain is accommodated by migration of vacancies in crystallographic lattice. This results in a change in crystal shape involving the transfer of mass by diffusion. These migrations are oriented towards sites of maximum stress and are limited by the grain boundaries; which conditions a crystallographic shape fabric or strain. The result is a more perfect crystal.
Dislocation creep is a non-linear (plastic) deformation mechanism in which vacancies in the crystal glide and climb past obstruction sites within the crystal lattice. These migrations within the crystal lattice can occur in one or more directions and are triggered by the effects of increased differential stress. It occurs at lower temperatures relative to diffusion creep. The mechanical process presented in dislocation creep is called slip. The principal direction in which dislocation takes place are defined by a combination of slip planes and weak crystallographic orientations resulting from vacancies and imperfections in the atomic structure. Each dislocation causes a part of the crystal to shift by one lattice point along the slip plane, relative to the rest of the crystal. Each crystalline material has different distances between atoms or ions in the crystal lattice, resulting in different lengths of displacement. The vector that characterizes the length and orientation of the displacement is called the Burgers vector. The development of strong lattice preferred orientation can be interpreted as evidence for dislocation creep as dislocations move only in specific lattice planes.
Dislocation glide cannot act on its own to produce large strains due to the effects of strain-hardening, where a dislocation 'tangle' can inhibit the movement of other dislocations, which then pile up behind the blocked ones causing the crystal to become difficult to deform. Diffusion and dislocation creep can occur simultaneously. The effective viscosity of a stressed material under given conditions of temperature, pressure, and strain rate will be determined by the mechanism that delivers the smallest viscosity. Some form of recovery process, such as dislocation climb or grain-boundary migration must also be active. Slipping of the dislocation results in a more stable state for the crystal as the pre-existing imperfection is removed. It requires much lower differential stress than that required for brittle fracturing. This mechanism does not damage the mineral or reduce the internal strength of crystals.
Dynamic recrystallization is the process of removing the internal strain that remains in grains during deformation. This happens by the reorganization of a material with a change in grain size, shape, and orientation within the same mineral. When recrystallization occurs after deformation has come to an end and particularly at high temperatures, the process is called static recystallization or annealing.Dynamic recystallization results in grain size-reduction and static recystallization results in the formation of larger equant grains.
Dynamic recrystallization can occur under a wide range of metamorphic conditions, and can strongly influence the mechanical properties of the deforming material. Dynamic recrystallization is the result of two end-member processes: (1) The formation and rotation of subgrains (rotation recrystallization) and (2) grain-boundary migration (migration recrystallization).
A deformation mechanism map is a way of representing the dominant deformation mechanism in a material loaded under a given set of conditions. The technique is applicable to all crystalline materials, metallurgical as well as geological. Deformation mechanism maps usually consist of some kind of stress plotted against some kind of temperature axis, typically stress normalized using the shear modulus versus homologous temperature with contours of strain rate. 
For a given set of operating conditions calculations are undergone and experiments performed to determine the predominant mechanism operative for a given material. Constitutive equations for the type of mechanism have been developed for each deformation mechanism and are used in the construction of the maps. The theoretical shear strength of the material is independent of temperature and located along the top of the map, with the regimes of plastic deformation mechanisms below it. Constant strain rate contours can be constructed on the maps using the constitutive equations of the deformation mechanisms which makes the maps extremely useful.
Deformation maps can also be constructed using any two of stress (normalized), temperature (normalized), and strain rate, with contours of the third variable. A stress/strain rate plot is useful because power-law mechanisms then have contours of temperature which are straight lines.
Deformation mechanism maps should not be confused with the similar but distinct failure mechanism maps, which were also first developed by Ashby.
The same technique has been used to construct process maps for sintering, diffusion bonding, hot isostatic pressing, and indentation .
Repeated experiments are performed to characterize the mechanism by which the material deforms. The dominant mechanism is the one which dominates the continuous deformation rate (strain rate), however at any given level of stress and temperature, more than one of the creep and plasticity mechanisms may be active. The boundaries between the fields are determined from the constitutive equations of the deformation mechanisms by solving for stress as a function of temperature.
For a given stress profile and temperature, the point lies in a particular "deformation field". If the values place the point near the center of a field, it is likely that the primary mechanism by which the material will fail, i.e.: the type and rate of failure expected, grain boundary diffusion, plasticity, Nabarro-Herring creep, etc... If however, the stress and temperature conditions place the point near the boundary between two deformation mechanism regions then the dominating mechanism is less clear. Near the boundary of the regimes there can be a combination of mechanisms of deformation occurring simultaneously. Deformation mechanism maps are only as accurate as the number of experiments and calculations undertaken in their creation.
For a given stress and temperature, the strain rate and deformation mechanism of a material is given by a point on the map. By comparing maps of various materials, crystal structures, bonds, grain sizes, etc., studies of these materials properties on plastic flow can be conducted and a more complete understanding of deformation in materials is obtained.
Above the theoretical shear strength of the material, a type of defect-less flow can still occur, shearing the material. Dislocation motion through glide (any temperature) or dislocation creep (at high temperatures) is a typical mechanism found at high stresses in deformation maps. Diffusional flow is a regime typically below dislocation creep and occurs at high temperatures due to the diffusion of point defects in the material. Diffusional flow can be further broken down into more specific mechanisms: Nabarro-Herring creep, Coble creep, and Harper-Dorn creep.