Continuum mechanics is a branch of mechanics that deals with the analysis of the kinematics and the mechanical behavior of materials modeled as a continuous mass rather than as discrete particles. The French mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy was the first to formulate such models in the 19th century. Research in the area continues today.
Procedure of Continuum
Materials, such as solids, liquids and gases, are composed of molecules separated by "empty" space. On a microscopic scale, materials have cracks and discontinuities. However, certain physical phenomena can be modeled assuming the materials exist as a continuum, meaning the matter in the body is continuously distributed and fills the entire region of space it occupies. A continuum is a body that can be continually sub-divided into infinitesimal elements with properties being those of the bulk material.
The validity of the continuum assumption may be verified by a theoretical analysis, in which either some clear periodicity is identified or statistical homogeneity and ergodicity of the microstructure exists. More specifically, the continuum hypothesis/assumption hinges on the concepts of a representative volume element (RVE) (sometimes called "representative elementary volume") and separation of scales based on the Hill–Mandel condition. This condition provides a link between an experimentalist's and a theoretician's viewpoint on constitutive equations (linear and nonlinear elastic/inelastic or coupled fields) as well as a way of spatial and statistical averaging of the microstructure.
When the separation of scales does not hold, or when one wants to establish a continuum of a finer resolution than that of the RVE size, one employs a statistical volume element (SVE), which, in turn, leads to random continuum fields. The latter then provide a micromechanics basis for stochastic finite elements (SFE). The levels of SVE and RVE link continuum mechanics to statistical mechanics. The RVE may be assessed only in a limited way via experimental testing: when the constitutive response becomes spatially homogeneous.
Specifically for fluids, the Knudsen number is used to assess to what extent the approximation of continuity can be made.