Electrically driven dielectric elastomers (DEs) suffer from an electromechanical instability (EMI) when the applied potential difference reaches a critical value. A majority of the past investigations address the mechanics of this operational instability by restricting the kinematics to homogeneous deformations. However, a DE membrane comprising both active and inactive electric regions undergoes inhomogeneous deformation, thus necessitating the solution of a complex boundary value problem. This paper reports the numerical and experimental investigation of such DE actuators with a particular emphasis on the EMI in quasistatic mode of actuation. The numerical simulations are performed using an in-house finite element framework developed based on the field theory of deformable dielectrics. Experiments are performed on the commercially available acrylic elastomer (VHB 4910) at varying levels of prestretch and proportions of the active to inactive areas. In particular, two salient features associated with the electromechanical response are addressed: the effect of the flexible boundary constraint and the locus of the dielectric breakdown point. To highlight the influence of the flexible boundary constraint, the estimates of the threshold value of potential difference on the onset of electromechanical instability are compared with the experimental observations and with those obtained using the lumped parameter models reported previously. Additionally, a locus of localized thinning, near the boundary of the active electric region, is identified using the numerical simulations and ascertained through the experimental observations. Finally, an approach based on the Airy stress function is suggested to justify the phenomenon of localized thinning leading to the dielectric breakdown.

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