Nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, is a hard biological composite found in the inside layer of many shells such as oyster or abalone. It is composed of microscopic ceramic tablets arranged in layers and tightly stacked to form a three-dimensional brick wall structure, where the mortar is a thin layer of biopolymers (20–30 nm). Although mostly made of a brittle ceramic, the structure of nacre is so well designed that its toughness is several order of magnitudes larger that the ceramic it is made of. How the microstructure of nacre controls its mechanical performance has been the focus of numerous studies over the past two decades, because such understanding may inspire novel composite designs though biomimetics. This paper presents in detail uniaxial tension experiment performed on miniature nacre specimens. Large inelastic deformations were observed in hydrated condition, which were explained by sliding of the tablets on one another and progressive locking generated by their microscopic waviness. Fracture experiments were also performed, and for the first time the full crack resistance curve was established for nacre. A rising resistance curve is an indication of the robustness and damage tolerance of that material. These measurements are then discussed and correlated with toughening extrinsic mechanisms operating at the microscale. Moreover, specific features of the microstructure and their relevance to associated toughening mechanisms were identified. These features and mechanisms, critical to the robustness of the shell, were finely tuned over millions of years of evolution. Hence, they are expected to serve as a basis to establish guidelines for the design of novel man-made composites.
Keywords: Biological material; Biocomposite; Tensile strength; Fracture; Toughening mechanisms