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Simulations lead to design of near-frictionless material

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While reviewing the simulation results of a promising new lubricant material, Argonne researcher Sanket Deshmukh stumbled upon a phenomenon that had never been observed before.

“I remember Sanket calling me and saying ‘you have got to come over here and see this. I want to show you something really cool,'” said Subramanian Sankaranarayanan, Argonne computational nanoscientist, who led the simulation work at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF), a DOE Office of Science User Facility.

They were amazed by what the computer simulations revealed. When the lubricant materials—graphene and diamond-like carbon (DLC)—slid against each other, the graphene began rolling up to form hollow cylindrical “scrolls” that helped to practically eliminate friction. These so-called nanoscrolls represented a completely new mechanism for superlubricity, a state in which friction essentially disappears.

“The nanoscrolls combat friction in very much the same way that ball bearings do by creating separation between surfaces,” said Deshmukh, who finished his postdoctoral appointment at Argonne in January.

Superlubricity is a highly desirable property. Considering that nearly one-third of every fuel tank is spent overcoming friction in automobiles, a material that can achieve superlubricity would greatly benefit industry and consumers alike. Such materials could also help increase the lifetime of countless mechanical components that wear down due to incessant friction.

Experimental origins

Prior to the computational work, Argonne scientists Ali Erdemir, Anirudha Sumant, and Diana Berman were studying the hybrid material in laboratory experiments at Argonne’s Tribology Laboratory and the Center for Nanoscale Materials, a DOE Office of Science User Facility. The experimental setup consisted of small patches of graphene (a two-dimensional single-sheet form of pure carbon) sliding against a DLC-coated steel ball.

The graphene-DLC combination was registering a very low friction coefficient (a ratio that measures the force of friction between two surfaces), but the friction levels were fluctuating up and down for no apparent reason. The experimentalists were also puzzled to find that humid environments were causing the friction coefficient to shoot up to levels that were nearly 100 times greater than measured in dry environments.

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