Researchers tune friction in ionic solids at the nanoscale

January 27, 2015
ORNL researchers tune friction in ionic solids at the nanoscale
Researchers used electricity and water to control friction levels on ionic surfaces at the nanoscale. As water forms around the nanoscale electrode, it allows for further penetration into the sample surface, thereby increasing or decreasing friction. Credit: ORNL

Friction impacts motion, hence the need to control friction forces. Currently, this is accomplished by mechanistic means or lubrication, but experiments conducted by researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have uncovered a way of controlling friction on ionic surfaces at the nanoscale using electrical stimulation and ambient water vapor.

The research, which demonstrates a new physical effect, was undertaken at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a DOE Office of Science User Facility at ORNL, and is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Our finding can have a significant technological impact on applications for both macroscopic and ," said lead author Evgheni Strelcov. "Decreasing or increasing at will and thus controlling mechanical energy losses and wear of a microelectromechanical system's parts has enormous implications for applied energy research and opens a new vista for fundamental science studies."

By inducing a strong electric field using an atomic force microscope, the researchers were able to both increase and decrease friction between a moving nanoscale electrode and an ionic surface. They argue that the primary effect responsible for this behavior is condensation of moisture from the surrounding air into liquid that can then reduce friction.

Simultaneously, further strengthening the results in the nanoscale electrode penetrating the surface and an increase of friction. This penetration is a new and unexpected effect, and the overall approach differs from other methods of friction control that often require adding a lubricant to the system instead of drawing on resources readily available in the immediate environment.

Additionally, unlike other electrochemical friction control practices, the new technique does not require an electrical current, which is associated with energy losses.

"Absence of current is highly beneficial from a power-saving perspective as it eliminates Joule heating and other parasitic power-consuming effects," says Bobby Sumpter, who led the group developing associated theoretical models.

This work builds on extensive efforts at CNMS exploring the electrical manipulation of mechanical, electrochemical and ferroelectric properties of materials.

"We adopted this biased view on the nanoscale almost a decade ago," said contributing author Sergei Kalinin. "Now we can proceed from observation to control of even such sublime phenomena as , and it is indeed very surprising and promising that we can both increase and decrease it."

Explore further: Finnish researchers find explanation for sliding friction

More information: The paper can be accessed at:

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