(Finite) statistical size effects on compressive strength
The larger structures are, the lower their mechanical strength. Already discussed by Leonardo da Vinci and Edme Mariotte several centuries ago, size effects on strength remain of crucial importance in modern engineering for the elaboration of safety regulations in structural design or the extrapolation of laboratory results to geophysical field scales. Under tensile loading, statistical size effects are traditionally modeled with a weakest-link approach. One of its prominent results is a prediction of vanishing strength at large scales that can be quantified in the framework of extreme value statistics. Despite a frequent use outside its range of validity, this approach remains the dominant tool in the field of statistical size effects. Here we focus on compressive failure, which concerns a wide range of geophysical and geotechnical situations. We show on historical and recent experimental data that weakest-link predictions are not obeyed. In particular, the mechanical strength saturates at a nonzero value toward large scales. Accounting explicitly for the elastic interactions between defects during the damage process, we build a formal analogy of compressive failure with the depinning transition of an elastic manifold. This critical transition interpretation naturally entails finite-size scaling laws for the mean strength and its associated variability. Theoretical predictions are in remarkable agreement with measurements reported for various materials such as rocks, ice, coal, or concrete. This formalism, which can also be extended to the flowing instability of granular media under multiaxial compression, has important practical consequences for future design rules.