Geometry and mechanics of uniform n-plies: from engineering ropes to biological filaments

S. Neukirch & G.H.M. van der Heijden

We study the mechanics of uniform n-plies, correcting and extending previous work in the literature. An n-ply is the structure formed when n pretwisted strands coil around one another in helical fashion. Such structures are encountered widely in engineering (mooring ropes, power lines) and biology (DNA, proteins). We first show that the well-known lock-up phenomenon for n=2, described by a pitchfork bifurcation, gets unfolded for higher n. Geometrically, n-plies with n>2 are all found to behave qualitatively the same. Next, using elastic rod theory, we consider the mechanics of n-plies, allowing for axial end forces and end moments while ignoring friction. An exact expression for the interstrand pressure force is derived, which is used to investigate the onset of strand separation in plied structures. After defining suitable displacements we also give an alternative variational formulation and derive (nonlinear) constitutive relationships for torsion and extension (including their coupling) of the overall ply. For a realistic loading problem in which the ends are not free to rotate one needs to consider the topological conservation law, and we show how the concepts of link and writhe can be extended to n-plies.

keywords: multi-strand plies, rod mechanics, end loads, constitutive relations, twist-stretch coupling, strand separation, birdcaging, helix, link, writhe, wire rope, DNA, proteins

Journal of Elasticity 69, 41-72 (2002)