The Packing of Granular Polymer Chains

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Science  16 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5951, pp. 408-410
DOI: 10.1126/science.1177114

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Like Beads on a String

The optimal packing of spheres, and the somewhat lower densities obtained in the compaction of granular materials are well studied problems. What is less clear is what happens when the spheres are connected, as in the case of polymeric materials—often represented by connected sphere models. Zou et al. (p. 408; see the Perspective by Reichhardt and Lopatina) examined the packing of chains of metal beads commonly used for securing bathroom drain plugs or for raising or lowering window blinds. Both the length of the chains, and whether they were linear or looped, influenced the overall packing density. Jamming the chains together captured the key physics of the glass transition of polymeric materials.


Rigid particles pack into structures, such as sand dunes on the beach, whose overall stability is determined by the average number of contacts between particles. However, when packing spatially extended objects with flexible shapes, additional concepts must be invoked to understand the stability of the resulting structure. Here, we examine the disordered packing of chains constructed out of flexibly connected hard spheres. Using x-ray tomography, we find that long chains pack into a low-density structure whose mechanical rigidity is mainly provided by the backbone. On compaction, randomly oriented, semi-rigid loops form along the chain, and the packing of chains can be understood as the jamming of these elements. Finally, we uncover close similarities between the packing of chains and the glass transition in polymers.

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