The material response of biologically relevant soft materials, e.g., extracellular matrix or cell cytoplasm, at high rate loading conditions is becoming increasingly important for emerging medical implications including the potential of cavitation-induced brain injury or cavitation created by medical devices, whether intentional or not. However, accurately probing soft samples remains challenging due to their delicate nature, which often excludes the use of conventional techniques requiring direct contact with a sample-loading frame. We present a drop-tower-based method, integrated with a unique sample holder and a series of effective springs and dampers, for testing soft samples with an emphasis on high-rate loading conditions. Our theoretical studies on the transient dynamics of the system show that well-controlled impacts between a movable mass and sample holder can be used as a means to rapidly load soft samples. For demonstrating the integrated system, we experimentally quantify the critical acceleration that corresponds to the onset of cavitation nucleation for pure water and 7.5% gelatin samples. This study reveals that 7.5% gelatin has a significantly higher, approximately double, critical acceleration as compared to pure water. Finally, we have also demonstrated a non-optical method of detecting cavitation in soft materials by correlating cavitation collapse with structural resonance of the sample container.
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