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Surprising Science

Reducing Friction at the Nano Level

When friction makes machines less efficient, we grease the gears, but that macro solution doesn’t work with nanotechnology. Researchers are learning to shake nanomachines instead. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers at the University of Modena are looking for solutions to wasteful friction that occurs on microsurfaces like computer disc drives. “[The researchers] examined the behaviour of a single tip, such as an atomic force microscope tip, in contact with a one-dimensional surface. In ordinary circumstances, the tip and the atoms on the surface arrange themselves in a way that minimises their energy. It is this energy barrier that causes stick-slip friction.” They found that shaking the surface causing the friction helps to decrease it.

What’s the Big Idea?

There is a further implication to smoothing friction by shaking microsurfaces: Machine parts can ride the energy of the shaking like a surfer rides a wave, making the machine more efficient still. “That could turn out to be especially important for microelectromechanical devices. MEMS were once heralded as machines that would change the world but we are still waiting for this revolution largely because of the problem of ‘stiction’. Very often, these machines stick and remain stuck.”


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