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Nanotechnology researchers discover a previously unknown type of friction

(Nanowerk News) Whether in vehicle transmissions, hip replacements, or tiny sensors for triggering airbags: The respective components must slide against each other with minimum friction to prevent loss of energy and material wear. Investigating the friction behavior of nanosystems, scientists from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) have discovered a previously unknown type of friction that sheds new light on some previously unexplainable phenomena ("Nanoscale Friction Mechanisms at Solid–Liquid Interfaces").
Friction is an annoying but omnipresent physical phenomenon: It causes wear and energy loss in machines as well as in our joints. In search of low-friction components for ever smaller components, a team of physicists led by the professors Thorsten Hugel and Alexander Holleitner now discovered a previously unknown type of friction that they call “desorption stick.”
A polymer chain tied to the tip of an atomic force microscope
Sliding or sticking of a polymer chain to different surfaces results in different forces measured with an atomic force microscope. (Image: B. Balzer/TUM)
The researchers examined how and why polymer molecules in various solvents slide over or adhere to certain surfaces. Their goal was to understand the basic laws of physics at the molecular scale in order to develop targeted anti-friction surfaces and suitable lubricants.
For their studies the scientists attached the end of a polymer molecule to the nanometer-fine tip of a highly sensitive atomic force microscope (AFM). While they dragged the polymer molecule over test surfaces, the AFM measured the resulting forces, from which the researchers could directly deduce the behavior of the polymer coil.
New friction mechanism discovered
In most experiments, the two expected friction mechanisms occurred: sticking and sliding. With certain combinations of polymer, solvent and surface, however, the system behaved differently.
"Although the polymer sticks to the surface, the polymer strand can be streched without significant force out of the coil into the surrounding solution," as experimentalist Thorsten Hugel describes this behavior. "The cause is probably a very low internal friction within the polymer coil."
The key is the solvent
Surprisingly, desorption stick depends neither on the speed of movement nor on the support surface or adhesive strength of the polymer. Instead, the chemical nature of the surface and the quality of the solvent are decisive. For example, hydrophobic polystyrene exhibits pure sliding behavior when dissolved in chloroform. In water, however, it shows desorption stick.
"The understanding gained by our measurement of single-molecule friction opens up new ways to minimize friction," says Alexander Holleitner. "In the future, with targeted preparation of polymers, new surfaces could be developed specifically for the nano- and micrometer range."
Source: Technische Universität München
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