Compression (physics)

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Uniaxial compression Compression applied.svg
Uniaxial compression

In mechanics, compression is the application of balanced inward ("pushing") forces to different points on a material or structure, that is, forces with no net sum or torque directed so as to reduce its size in one or more directions. [1] It is contrasted with tension or traction, the application of balanced outward ("pulling") forces; and with shearing forces, directed so as to displace layers of the material parallel to each other. The compressive strength of materials and structures is an important engineering consideration.


In uniaxial compression, the forces are directed along one direction only, so that they act towards decreasing the object's length along that direction. [2] The compressive forces may also be applied in multiple directions; for example inwards along the edges of a plate or all over the side surface of a cylinder, so as to reduce its area (biaxial compression), or inwards over the entire surface of a body, so as to reduce its volume.

Technically, a material is under a state of compression, at some specific point and along a specific direction , if the normal component of the stress vector across a surface with normal direction is directed opposite to . If the stress vector itself is opposite to , the material is said to be under normal compression or pure compressive stress along . In a solid, the amount of compression generally depends on the direction , and the material may be under compression along some directions but under traction along others. If the stress vector is purely compressive and has the same magnitude for all directions, the material is said to be under isotropic or hydrostatic compression at that point. This is the only type of static compression that liquids and gases can bear. [3]

In a mechanical wave which is longitudinal, the medium is displaced in the wave's direction, resulting in areas of compression and rarefaction.


When put under compression (or any other type of stress), every material will suffer some deformation, even if imperceptible, that causes the average relative positions of its atoms and molecules to change. The deformation may be permanent, or may be reversed when the compression forces disappear. In the latter case, the deformation gives rise to reaction forces that oppose the compression forces, and may eventually balance them. [4]

Liquids and gases cannot bear steady uniaxial or biaxial compression, they will deform promptly and permanently and will not offer any permanent reaction force. However they can bear isotropic compression, and may be compressed in other ways momentarily, for instance in a sound wave.

Tightening a corset applies biaxial compression to the waist. Corset 1900.jpg
Tightening a corset applies biaxial compression to the waist.

Every ordinary material will contract in volume when put under isotropic compression, contract in cross-section area when put under uniform biaxial compression, and contract in length when put into uniaxial compression. The deformation may not be uniform and may not be aligned with the compression forces. What happens in the directions where there is no compression depends on the material. [4] Most materials will expand in those directions, but some special materials will remain unchanged or even contract. In general, the relation between the stress applied to a material and the resulting deformation is a central topic of continuum mechanics.


Compression test on a universal testing machine Compression test.jpg
Compression test on a universal testing machine

Compression of solids has many implications in materials science, physics and structural engineering, for compression yields noticeable amounts of stress and tension.

By inducing compression, mechanical properties such as compressive strength or modulus of elasticity, can be measured. [5]

Compression machines range from very small table top systems to ones with over 53 MN capacity.

Gases are often stored and shipped in highly compressed form, to save space. Slightly compressed air or other gases are also used to fill balloons, rubber boats, and other inflatable structures. Compressed liquids are used in hydraulic equipment and in fracking.

In engines

Internal combustion engines

In internal combustion engines the explosive mixture gets compressed before it is ignited; the compression improves the efficiency of the engine. In the Otto cycle, for instance, the second stroke of the piston effects the compression of the charge which has been drawn into the cylinder by the first forward stroke. [6]

Steam engines

The term is applied to the arrangement by which the exhaust valve of a steam engine is made to close, shutting a portion of the exhaust steam in the cylinder, before the stroke of the piston is quite complete. This steam being compressed as the stroke is completed, a cushion is formed against which the piston does work while its velocity is being rapidly reduced, and thus the stresses in the mechanism due to the inertia of the reciprocating parts are lessened. [7] This compression, moreover, obviates the shock which would otherwise be caused by the admission of the fresh steam for the return stroke.

See also

Related Research Articles

Reciprocating engine Engine utilising one or more reciprocating pistons

A reciprocating engine, also often known as a piston engine, is typically a heat engine that uses one or more reciprocating pistons to convert high temperature and high pressure into a rotating motion. This article describes the common features of all types. The main types are: the internal combustion engine, used extensively in motor vehicles; the steam engine, the mainstay of the Industrial Revolution; and the Stirling engine for niche applications. Internal combustion engines are further classified in two ways: either a spark-ignition (SI) engine, where the spark plug initiates the combustion; or a compression-ignition (CI) engine, where the air within the cylinder is compressed, thus heating it, so that the heated air ignites fuel that is injected then or earlier.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Transverse wave</span> Moving wave whose oscillations are perpendicular to the direction of the wave

In physics, a transverse wave is a wave whose oscillations are perpendicular to the direction of the wave's advance. This is in contrast to a longitudinal wave which travels in the direction of its oscillations. Water waves are an example of transverse wave.

Crystal optics is the branch of optics that describes the behaviour of light in anisotropic media, that is, media in which light behaves differently depending on which direction the light is propagating. The index of refraction depends on both composition and crystal structure and can be calculated using the Gladstone–Dale relation. Crystals are often naturally anisotropic, and in some media it is possible to induce anisotropy by applying an external electric field.

Birefringence Optical phenomenon

Birefringence is the optical property of a material having a refractive index that depends on the polarization and propagation direction of light. These optically anisotropic materials are said to be birefringent. The birefringence is often quantified as the maximum difference between refractive indices exhibited by the material. Crystals with non-cubic crystal structures are often birefringent, as are plastics under mechanical stress.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stress (mechanics)</span> Physical quantity that expresses internal forces in a continuous material

In continuum mechanics, stress is a physical quantity. It results when forces like tension or compression act on a body. The greater this force and the smaller the cross-sectional area of the body on which it acts, the greater the stress. So stress is measured in newton per square meter (N/m2) or pascal (Pa).

Poissons ratio Measure of material deformation perpendicular to loading

In materials science and solid mechanics, Poisson's ratio (nu) is a measure of the Poisson effect, the deformation of a material in directions perpendicular to the specific direction of loading. The value of Poisson's ratio is the negative of the ratio of transverse strain to axial strain. For small values of these changes, is the amount of transversal elongation divided by the amount of axial compression. Most materials have Poisson's ratio values ranging between 0.0 and 0.5. For soft materials, such as rubber, where the bulk modulus is much higher than the shear modulus, Poisson's ratio is near 0.5. For open-cell polymer foams, Poisson's ratio is near zero, since the cells tend to collapse in compression. Many typical solids have Poisson's ratios in the range of 0.2–0.3. The ratio is named after the French mathematician and physicist Siméon Poisson.

The field of strength of materials, also called mechanics of materials, typically refers to various methods of calculating the stresses and strains in structural members, such as beams, columns, and shafts. The methods employed to predict the response of a structure under loading and its susceptibility to various failure modes takes into account the properties of the materials such as its yield strength, ultimate strength, Young's modulus, and Poisson's ratio. In addition, the mechanical element's macroscopic properties such as its length, width, thickness, boundary constraints and abrupt changes in geometry such as holes are considered.

Compressive strength Capacity of a material or structure to withstand loads tending to reduce size

In mechanics, compressive strength or compression strength is the capacity of a material or structure to withstand loads tending to reduce size. In other words, compressive strength resists compression, whereas tensile strength resists tension. In the study of strength of materials, tensile strength, compressive strength, and shear strength can be analyzed independently.

A Newtonian fluid is a fluid in which the viscous stresses arising from its flow are at every point linearly correlated to the local strain rate — the rate of change of its deformation over time. Stresses are proportional to the rate of change of the fluid's velocity vector.

An elastic modulus is the unit of measurement of an object's or substance's resistance to being deformed elastically when a stress is applied to it. The elastic modulus of an object is defined as the slope of its stress–strain curve in the elastic deformation region: A stiffer material will have a higher elastic modulus. An elastic modulus has the form:

Stress–strain analysis is an engineering discipline that uses many methods to determine the stresses and strains in materials and structures subjected to forces. In continuum mechanics, stress is a physical quantity that expresses the internal forces that neighboring particles of a continuous material exert on each other, while strain is the measure of the deformation of the material.

This is an alphabetical list of articles pertaining specifically to mechanical engineering. For a broad overview of engineering, please see List of engineering topics. For biographies please see List of engineers.

Triaxial shear test

A triaxial shear test is a common method to measure the mechanical properties of many deformable solids, especially soil and rock, and other granular materials or powders. There are several variations on the test.

Material failure theory is an interdisciplinary field of materials science and solid mechanics which attempts to predict the conditions under which solid materials fail under the action of external loads. The failure of a material is usually classified into brittle failure (fracture) or ductile failure (yield). Depending on the conditions most materials can fail in a brittle or ductile manner or both. However, for most practical situations, a material may be classified as either brittle or ductile.

Micro-mechanics of failure

The theory of micro-mechanics of failure aims to explain the failure of continuous fiber reinforced composites by micro-scale analysis of stresses within each constituent material, and of the stresses at the interfaces between those constituents, calculated from the macro stresses at the ply level.

Single- and double-acting cylinders Classification of reciprocating engine cylinders

In mechanical engineering, the cylinders of reciprocating engines are often classified by whether they are single- or double-acting, depending on how the working fluid acts on the piston.

The viscous stress tensor is a tensor used in continuum mechanics to model the part of the stress at a point within some material that can be attributed to the strain rate, the rate at which it is deforming around that point.

The acoustoelastic effect is how the sound velocities of an elastic material change if subjected to an initial static stress field. This is a non-linear effect of the constitutive relation between mechanical stress and finite strain in a material of continuous mass. In classical linear elasticity theory small deformations of most elastic materials can be described by a linear relation between the applied stress and the resulting strain. This relationship is commonly known as the generalised Hooke's law. The linear elastic theory involves second order elastic constants and yields constant longitudinal and shear sound velocities in an elastic material, not affected by an applied stress. The acoustoelastic effect on the other hand include higher order expansion of the constitutive relation between the applied stress and resulting strain, which yields longitudinal and shear sound velocities dependent of the stress state of the material. In the limit of an unstressed material the sound velocities of the linear elastic theory are reproduced.

Most of the terms listed in Wikipedia glossaries are already defined and explained within Wikipedia itself. However, glossaries like this one are useful for looking up, comparing and reviewing large numbers of terms together. You can help enhance this page by adding new terms or writing definitions for existing ones.

Biaxial tensile testing

Biaxial tensile testing is a versatile technique to address the mechanical characterization of planar materials. Typical materials tested in biaxial configuration include metal sheets, silicone elastomers, composites, thin films, textiles and biological soft tissues.


  1. Ferdinand Pierre Beer, Elwood Russell Johnston, John T. DeWolf (1992), "Mechanics of Materials". (Book) McGraw-Hill Professional, ISBN   0-07-112939-1
  2. Erkens, Sandra & Poot, M. The uniaxial compression test. Delft University of Technology. (1998). Report number: 7-98-117-4.
  3. Ronald L. Huston and Harold Josephs (2009), "Practical Stress Analysis in Engineering Design". 3rd edition, CRC Press, 634 pages. ISBN 9781574447132
  4. 1 2 Fung, Y. C. (1977). A First Course in Continuum Mechanics (2nd ed.). Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 978-0-13-318311-5.
  5. Hartsuijker, C.; Welleman, J. W. (2001). Engineering Mechanics. Volume 2. Springer. ISBN 978-1-4020-412
  6. J.Heywood. Internal Combustion Engine Fundamentals 2E. McGraw-Hill Education. (2018). ISBN 9781260116113 [url=]
  7. Wiser, Wendell H. (2000). Energy resources: occurrence, production, conversion, use. Birkhäuser. p. 190. ISBN   978-0-387-98744-6.