Flex your fingers and you’ll see your skin fold into well-defined creases. Many soft solids (including old apples) fold this way, and like your skin, the creases never fully disappear, even when the stress is removed. A recent study finds that surface tension and contact-line-pinning are critical to the irreversibility of these creases.
The authors studied sticky polymer gel layers under a confocal microscope as the gel folded. In doing so, they found that surface tension dictates the microscopic geometry of a fold, causing the two sides of a surface to touch. They also found that completely unfolding a creased surface requires more energy than folding it in the first place did because the folded surfaces adhere to one another.
When unfolded, the crease behaves somewhat like a droplet on a rough surface. Such droplets move in fits; their contact line stays pinned to the rough microscopic peaks of the surface until there’s enough energy to overcome that attachment and the contact line jumps to another position. Similarly, a creased surface cannot simply unfold smoothly. Adhesion ensures that part of the crease remains, serving as a starting point for the next fold-unfold cycle. (Image credit: C. Rainer; research credit: M. van Limbeek et al.; via APS Physics; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)