Soft matter or soft condensed matter is a subfield of condensed matter comprising a variety of physical systems that are deformed or structurally altered by thermal or mechanical stress of the magnitude of thermal fluctuations. They include liquids, colloids, polymers, foams, gels, granular materials, liquid crystals, pillows, flesh, and a number of biological materials. These materials share an important common feature in that predominant physical behaviors occur at an energy scale comparable with room temperature thermal energy. At these temperatures, quantum aspects are generally unimportant. Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, who has been called the "founding father of soft matter," received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1991 for discovering that methods developed for studying order phenomena in simple systems can be generalized to the more complex cases found in soft matter, in particular, to the behaviors of liquid crystals and polymers.
Interesting behaviors arise from soft matter in ways that cannot be predicted, or are difficult to predict, directly from its atomic or molecular constituents. Materials termed soft matter exhibit this property due to a shared propensity of these materials to self-organize into mesoscopic physical structures. By way of contrast, in hard condensed matter physics it is often possible to predict the overall behavior of a material because the molecules are organized into a crystalline lattice with no changes in the pattern at any mesoscopic scale.
One defining characteristic of soft matter is the mesoscopic scale of physical structures. The structures are much larger than the microscopic scale (the arrangement of atoms and molecules), and yet are much smaller than the macroscopic (overall) scale of the material. The properties and interactions of these mesoscopic structures may determine the macroscopic behavior of the material. For example, the turbulent vortices that naturally occur within a flowing liquid are much smaller than the overall quantity of liquid and yet much larger than its individual molecules, and the emergence of these vortices control the overall flowing behavior of the material. Also, the bubbles that comprise a foam are mesoscopic because they individually consist of a vast number of molecules, and yet the foam itself consists of a great number of these bubbles, and the overall mechanical stiffness of the foam emerges from the combined interactions of the bubbles.
A second common feature of soft matter is the importance of thermal fluctuations. Typical bond energies in soft matter structures are of similar scale as thermal energies. Therefore, the structures are constantly affected by thermal fluctuations, undergoing Brownian motion.
Finally, a third distinctive feature of soft matter system is self-assembly. The characteristic complex behavior and hierarchical structures arise spontaneously as the system evolves towards equilibrium.
Soft materials also present an interesting behavior during fracture because they become highly deformed before crack propagation. Therefore, the fracture of soft material differs significantly from the general fracture mechanics formulation.
Soft materials are important in a wide range of technological applications. They may appear as structural and packaging materials, foams and adhesives, detergents and cosmetics, paints, food additives, lubricants and fuel additives, rubber in tires, etc. In addition, a number of biological materials (blood, muscle, milk, yogurt, jello) are classifiable as soft matter. Liquid crystals, another category of soft matter, exhibit a responsivity to electric fields that make them very important as materials in display devices (LCDs). In spite of the various forms of these materials, many of their properties have common physicochemical origins, such as a large number of internal degrees of freedom, weak interactions between structural elements, and a delicate balance between entropic and enthalpic contributions to the free energy. These properties lead to large thermal fluctuations, a wide variety of forms, sensitivity of equilibrium structures to external conditions, macroscopic softness, and metastable states. Active liquid crystals are another example of soft materials, where the constituent elements in liquid crystals can self propel. Soft matter, such as polymers and lipids have found applications in nanotechnology as well.
The realization that soft matter contains innumerable examples of symmetry breaking, generalized elasticity, and many fluctuating degrees of freedom has re-invigorated classical fields of physics such as fluids (now generalized to non-Newtonian and structured media) and elasticity (membranes, filaments, and anisotropic networks are all important and have common aspects).
Historically the problems considered in the early days of soft matter science were those pertaining to the biological sciences. As such, an important part of soft condensed matter research is biophysics with a major goal of the discipline being the reduction of the field of cell biology to the concepts of soft matter physics.
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Media related to Soft matter at Wikimedia Commons
- Pierre-Gilles de Gennes' Nobel Lecture
- American Physical Society Topical Group on Soft Matter (GSOFT)
- Softbites - a blog run by graduate students and postdocs that makes soft matter more accessible through bite-sized posts that summarize current and classic soft matter research
- SklogWiki - a wiki dedicated to simple liquids, complex fluids, and soft condensed matter.
- Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Soft Matter Wiki - organizes, reviews, and summarizes academic papers on soft matter.
- Soft Matter Engineering - A group dedicated to Soft Matter Engineering at the University of Florida
- Google Scholar page on soft matter