A granular material is a conglomeration of discrete solid, macroscopic particles characterized by a loss of energy whenever the particles interact (the most common example would be friction when grains collide). The constituents that compose granular material must be large enough such that they are not subject to thermal motion fluctuations. Thus, the lower size limit for grains in granular material is about 1 µm. On the upper size limit, the physics of granular materials may be applied to ice floes where the individual grains are icebergs and to asteroid belts of the solar system with individual grains being asteroids.
Some examples of granular materials are nuts, coal, sand, rice, coffee, corn flakes, fertilizer and ball bearings. Powders are a special class of granular material due to their small particle size, which makes them more cohesive and more easily suspended in a gas. Granular materials are commercially important in applications as diverse as pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, and energy production. Research into granular materials is thus directly applicable and goes back at least to Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, whose law of friction was originally stated for granular materials.
In materials science, fragile matter is a granular material that is jammed solid. Everyday examples include beans getting stuck in a hopper in a whole food shop, or milk powder getting jammed in an upside-down bottle. The term was coined by physicist Michael Cates, who asserts that such circumstances warrant a new class of materials. The jamming thus described can be unjammed by mechanical means, such as tapping or shaking the container, or poking it with a stick.
Cates proposed that such jammed systems differ from ordinary solids in that if the direction of the applied stress changes, the jam will break up. Sometimes the change of direction required is very small.
Perhaps the simplest example is a pile of sand, which is solid in the sense that the pile sustains its shape despite the force of gravity. Slight tilting or vibration is enough to enable the grains to shift, collapsing the pile.
Not all jammed systems are fragile, i.e. foam. Shaving foam is jammed because the bubbles are tightly packed together under the isotropic stress imposed by atmospheric pressure. If it were a fragile solid, it would respond plastically to shear stress, however small. But because bubbles deform, foam actually responds elastically provided that the stress is below a threshold value. Fragile matter is also not to be confused with cases in which the particles have adhered to one another ("caking").