CUA - Center for Ultracold Atoms

Research Highlights

MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms, A National Science Foundation Physics Frontier Center

Vanishing friction

Published 6.4.2015

Authors:
Alexei Bylinskii, Dorian Gangloff, Vladan Vuletić

Friction is all around us, working against the motion of tires on pavement, the scrawl of a pen across paper, and even the flow of proteins through the bloodstream. Whenever two surfaces come in contact, there is friction, except in very special cases where friction essentially vanishes — a phenomenon, known as “superlubricity,” in which surfaces simply slide over each other without resistance.

Now physicists at MIT have developed an experimental technique to simulate friction at the nanoscale. Using their technique, the researchers are able to directly observe individual atoms at the interface of two surfaces and manipulate their arrangement, tuning the amount of friction between the surfaces. By changing the spacing of atoms on one surface, they observed a point at which friction disappears.

Vladan Vuletic, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Physics at MIT, says the ability to tune friction would be helpful in developing nanomachines — tiny robots built from components the size of single molecules. Vuletic says that at the nanoscale, friction may exact a greater force — for instance, creating wear and tear on tiny motors much faster than occurs at larger scales.

“There’s a big effort to understand friction and control it, because it’s one of the limiting factors for nanomachines, but there has been relatively little progress in actually controlling friction at any scale,” Vuletic says. “What is new in our system is, for the first time on the atomic scale, we can see this transition from friction to superlubricity.”

Vuletic, along with graduate students Alexei Bylinskii and Dorian Gangloff, publish their results today in the journal Science.

Continue to the full article at the MIT News Office website.

Read more about this research:

Controlling friction atom by atom – Sciencemag.org (pdf)

Friction of a single atom measured with light – at Nature.com

In tuning friction to the point where it disappears, technique could boost development of nanomachines – at Phys.org

Virtually Frictionless Surface Could Smooth Trail to Nanotech – at NBCnews.com

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