Discovery About Lubricants Could Lead To Less Machinery Wear

December 06, 1996

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Scientists long have known that surface roughness plays a major role in the wear and tear of moving parts. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois have found that randomness, not roughness, is a major contributor to friction at the molecular level.

In a series of measurements, U. of I. materials scientist Steve Granick and graduate student A. Levent Demirel linked the occurrence of stick-slip friction -- in which sliding surfaces momentarily stick and then slide -- with a random fracturing of the liquid lubricant. While other researchers had previously observed the stick-slip motion, the tiny fluctuations were generally attributed to experimental irregularities or background noise in the measurements. The team's findings, which appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of Physical Review Letters, offer a new interpretation of a sticky subject.

"We tend to take for granted that friction is an exact number," Granick said. "Our textbooks tell us that solid surfaces will remain at rest until a certain frictional force is overcome; thereafter they will move smoothly. We found that it really isn't that simple."

To identify the true nature of the stick-slip phenomenon, Granick and Demirel placed a droplet of the synthetic lubricant squalane between two smooth plates of mica. (The resulting film was about 2 nanometers thick, corresponding to a layer of lubricant only 4 molecules high.) The researchers then forced one plate to slide over the other, and recorded the frictional response. They repeated their experiment over millions of stick-slip cycles.

"The overall stick-slip process was preceded by jagged, microscopic stick-slip events," Granick said. "The sliding surface moved several nanometers, paused, then moved again. The sliding motion was neither smooth nor periodic; it was random."

Granick attributes the random sticking and sliding to a fracturing and healing process occurring within the lubricant. When the surfaces are in motion, the lubricant breaks down and the surfaces stick. The lubricant then reforms at rest; the surfaces begin to slide and the process starts over.

But the fracturing doesn't happen the same way each time, and that random nature shows clearly in the measurements, Granick said. Although the liquid does not break down in a chemical sense, the physical characteristics do change. The way in which the fluid breaks down and then heals gives rise to the stick-slip motion.

"When studying friction at the molecular level, we must consider the random fracturing of the lubricant film itself, in addition to all the conventional mechanical principles that people have thought about for a long time," Granick said. "A better understanding of how the lubricant fractures, and how we might control it, may lead to significantly reduced wear and tear on machinery."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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