Instrumentation for the testing of mechanical properties on the submicron scale has developed enormously in recent years. This has enabled the mechanical behavior of surfaces, thin films, and coatings to be studied with unprecedented accuracy. In this chapter, the various techniques available for studying nanomechanical properties are reviewed with particular emphasis on nanoindentation. The standard methods for analyzing the raw data obtained using these techniques are described, along with the main sources of error. These include residual stresses, environmental effects, elastic anisotropy, and substrate effects. The methods that have been developed for extracting thin-film mechanical properties from the often convoluted mix of film and substrate properties measured by nanoindentation are discussed. Interpreting the data is frequently difficult, as residual stresses can modify the contact geometry and, hence, invalidate the standard analysis routines. Work hardening in the deformed region can also result in variations in mechanical behavior with indentation depth. A further unavoidable complication stems from the ratio of film to substrate mechanical properties and the depth of indentation in comparison to film thickness. Even very shallow indentations may be influenced by substrate properties if the film is hard and very elastic but the substrate is compliant. Under these circumstances nonstandard methods of analysis must be used. For multilayered systems many different mechanisms affect the nanomechanical behavior, including Orowan strengthening, Hall—Petch behavior, image force effects, coherency and thermal stresses, and composition modulation.
The application of nanoindentation to the study of phase transformations in semiconductors, fracture in brittle materials, and mechanical properties in biological materials are described. Recent developments such as the testing of viscoelasticity using nanoindentation methods are likely to be particularly important in future studies of polymers and biological materials. The importance of using a range of complementary methods such as electron microscopy, in situ AFM imaging, acoustic monitoring, and electrical contact measurements is emphasized. These are especially important on the nanoscale because so many different physical and chemical processes can affect the measured mechanical properties.