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In this paper a thorough analysis of the equivalent indenter concept applied to nano-indentation is carried out, motivated by the fact that previous works in the field have not considered the requirement of a consistent relation between contact depth and projected contact area. Dimensional analysis is initially used to prove that the shape of the axisymmetric equivalent indenter can be regarded as a material property, provided that size-effects are negligible. Subsequently, it is shown that such shape can effectively be employed to describe the nano-indentation unloading stage by means of Sneddon's elastic solution which is formally valid only for indentation into a flat surface. This allows for formulating the problem of extracting Young's modulus from the unloading curve as an optimization problem. However, it is proved that the latter does not have a unique solution, due to the particular mathematical structure of the underlying equations; hence, additional constraints are needed to set restrictions on the admissible equivalent indenter shapes. An example of such constraint is hidden in some apparent inconsistencies of the well-known Oliver–Pharr method, which is demonstrated to be based on an equivalent conical indenter whose semi-apical angle depends on the ratio between residual and total penetration. Specifically, this angle tends to 90° when the material exhibits extensive inelastic deformation, whereas it reduces to the one characteristic of the real indenter for a perfectly elastic material. This provides a new physical explanation for the relatively good accuracy of the method even in presence of a non-negligible residual contact impression on the sample.
Original languageEnglish
Article number045004
JournalModelling and Simulation in Materials Science and Engineering
Issue number4
Number of pages22
StatePublished - 2017
CitationsWeb of Science® Times Cited: 2


  • Indentation, Analytical solutions, Young’s modulus, Elastic modulus, Oliver–Pharr, Equivalent indenter, Effective indenter
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