As the outer cover of teeth structure, enamel is the hardest, stiffest and one of the most durable load-bearing tissues of the human body. Also, enamel is an elegantly designed natural biocomposite. From a material science point of view, scientists are interested in the structure and function of the nature material. How does nature design the material to meet its functional needs? From a dental clinic point of view, dental practitioners are keen to know the properties of enamel and compare it with different dental materials. What kind of dental materials can best simulate enamel as a restoration in the oral cavity? The research presented in this thesis on the mechanical behaviour of enamel in respect of its structural and compositional characteristics will attempt to provide answers or indications to the above questions.
Theoretical analysis, as well as experimental investigations of both man-made and natural composites materials, has shown that hierarchical microstructure and organic matrix glues the inorganic particles together and plays an important role in regulating the mechanical properties of the composite. Bearing this finding in mind, in the current investigations, we assume the hierarchical microstructure and trace protein remnants in enamel regulate the mechanical behaviour of the natural biocomposite to meet its functional needs as a load bearing tissue with superb anti-fatigue and wear resistant properties.
One of the important reasons that dental hard tissues haven’t been thoroughly investigated is due to the limited sample volume. Fortunately, with the development of nanoindentation technique and equipment, it is now possible to explore the mechanical properties of small volume samples. The application of nanoindentation on dental hard tissues has been documented. However, most investigations have concentrated on only reporting the basic mechanical properties such as elastic modulus and hardness. Very few of them have taken the role of microstructure and composition of these natural biocomposites into their considerations. The main aim of this investigation is to interpret how microstructural and compositional features of enamel regulate its mechanical behaviour. To achieve this goal, the analytical methods considering nanoindentation data need to be expanded so that more information not only elastic modulus and hardness but also stress-strain relationship, energy absorption ability, and creep behaviour may be evaluated with this technique. These new methods will also be of benefit to dental material evaluation and selection.
Materials and methods
Based on the Oliver-Pharr method1 for the analysis of nanoindentation data, Hertzian contact theory2 and Tabor’s theory3, a spherical nanoindentation method for measuring the stress-strain relationship was developed. Furthermore, nanoindentation energy absorption analysis method and nanoindentation creep test were developed to measure the inelastic property of enamel.
With the above methods, sound enamel samples were investigated and compared with various dental materials, including dental ceramics and dental alloys.
• Firstly, using a Berkovich indenter and three spherical indenters with 5, 10 and 20 µm nominal radius, the elastic modulus, hardness and stress-strain relationship of different samples were investigated and compared.
• Secondly, mechanical properties of enamel in respect to its microstructure were investigated intensively using different indenters by sectioning teeth at different angles.
• Thirdly, inelastic behaviour of enamel such as energy absorption and creep deformation were observed and compared with a fully sintered dense hydroxyapatite (HAP) disk to illustrate the roles of protein remnants in regulating the mechanical behaviour of enamel.
• Fourthly, to confirm the functions of protein remnants in controlling mechanical behaviour of enamel, enamel samples were treated under different environments such as burning (300°C exposure for 5 min), alcohol dehydration and rehydration to change the properties of proteins before the nanoindentation tests.
• Lastly, micro-Raman spectroscopy was employed to measure and compare the indentation residual stresses in enamel and HAP disk to evaluate the role of both hierarchical microstructure and protein remnants in redistributing the stresses and reinforcing the mechanical response of enamel to deformation.
Results and significance
Nanoindentation is an attractive method for measuring the mechanical behaviour of small specimen volumes. Using this technique, the mechanical properties of enamel were investigated at different orientations and compared with dental restorative materials. From the present study, the following results were found and conclusions were drawn.
Although some newly developed dental ceramics have similar elastic modulus to enamel, the hardness of these ceramic products is still much higher than enamel; in contrast, despite the higher elastic modulus, dental metallic alloys have very similar hardness as enamel. Furthermore, enamel has similar stress-strain relationships and creep behaviour to that of dental metallic alloys. SEM also showed enamel has an inelastic deformation pattern around indentation impressions. All of these responses indicated that enamel behaves more like a metallic material rather than a ceramic.
Elastic modulus of enamel is influenced by highly oriented rod units and HAP crystallites. As a result, it was found to be a function of contact area. This provides a basis to understand the different results reported in the literature from macro-scale and micro-scale tests. Anisotropic properties of enamel, which arise from the rod units, are well reflected in the stress-strain curves. The top surface (perpendicular to the rod axis) is stiffer and has higher stress-strain response than an adjacent cross section surface because of the greater influence of the prism sheaths in the latter behaviour.
Enamel showed much higher energy absorption capacity and considerably more creep deformation behaviour than HAP, a ceramic material with similar mineral composition. This is argued to be due to the existence of minor protein remnants in enamel. Possible mechanisms include fluid flow within the sheath structure, protein “sacrificial bond” theory, and nano-scale friction within sheaths associated with the degustation of enamel rods.
A simple model with respect of hierarchical microstructure of enamel was developed to illustrate the structural related contact deformation mechanisms of human enamel. Within the contact indentation area, thin protein layers between HAP crystallites bear most of the deformation in the form of shear strain, which is approximately 16 times bigger than contact strain in the case of a Vickers indenter. By replotting energy absorption against mean strain value of a protein layer, data from different indenters on enamel superimposed, validating the model. This model partially explained the non-linear indentation stress-strain relationship, inelastic contact response and large energy absorption ability of enamel and indicated the inelastic characteristics of enamel were related to the thin protein layers between crystallites.
Following different treatments, mechanical properties of enamel changed significantly. By denaturing or destroying the protein remnants, mechanical behaviour, especially inelastic abilities of enamel decreased dramatically, which indicates matrix proteins endow enamel better performance as a load bearing calcified tissue.
Comparison of Raman derived residual maps about indentations in enamel and a sintered homogeneous HAP showed the hierarchical structure influenced the residual stress distribution within enamel. Moreover, less residual stresses were found in enamel and were a consequence of the protein remnants. These are evidence as to how the microstructure meets the functional needs of the enamel tissue.
In general, evidence from different approaches indicated that the hierarchical microstructure and small protein remnants regulated the mechanical behaviour of enamel significantly at various hierarchical levels utilising different mechanisms. This investigation has provided some basis for understanding natural biocomposites and assisting with dental clinic materials selection and treatment evaluation procedures.
1. Oliver WC, Pharr GM. An improved technique for determining hardness and elastic modulus using load and displacement sensing indentation experiments. J Mater Res. 1992;7(6):1564-83.
2. Hertz H. Miscellaneous Papers. London: Jones and Schott, Macmillan; 1863.
3. Tabor D. Hardness of Metals. Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1951.|