In physics and materials science, plasticity is a property of a material to undergo a non-reversible change of shape in response to an applied force. Plastic deformation occurs under shear stress, as opposed to brittle fractures which occur under normal stress. Examples of plastic materials are clay and mild steel.
For many ductile metals, tensile loading applied to a sample will cause it to behave in an elastic manner. Each increment of load is accompanied by a proportional increment in extension, and when the load is removed, the piece returns exactly to its original size. However, once the load exceeds some threshold (the yield strength), the extension increases more rapidly than in the elastic region, and when the load is removed, some amount of the extension remains. A generic graph displaying this behaviour is below. See also Hooke's law.
Ductile materials can sustain large plastic deformations without fracture. However, even ductile metals will fracture when the strain becomes large enough - this is as a result of work-hardening of the material, which causes it to become brittle. Heat treatment such as annealing can restore the ductility of a worked piece, so that shaping can continue.
In 1934, Egon Orowan, Michael Polanyi and Geoffrey Ingram Taylor, roughly simultaneously, realised that the plastic deformation of ductile materials could be explained in terms of the theory of dislocations.
Some materials, especially those prone to Martensitic transformations, deform in ways that are not well described by the classic theories of plasticity and elasticity. One of the best-known examples of this is nitinol, which exhibits pseudoelasticity : deformations which are reversible in the context of mechanical design, but irreversible in terms of thermodynamics.