People say that water and oil don’t mix. They can, however, co-exist as two separate molecules on the same surface. And therein lie both opportunities and challenges for National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers who are aiding industry efforts to develop surface protecting and lubricating films that will shield super-small machines and their even tinier components from friction and wear.
Ultrathin lubricants or single-layer films will be needed for the minuscule nanotechnology gadgetry to come, from dust-sized environmental sensors to machines for repairing damaged cells. Today’s lubrication systems—such as the fluorocarbon compounds and carbon overcoats used on magnetic disk drives—may not be adequate to meet the demanding performance requirements envisioned for nanotechnology applications.
With collaborators from the data-storage and lubricant industries, the NIST team is exploring the lubricating potential of a mixed-molecule, single-layer film. They are testing novel combinations of up to four different molecules, each one chosen to achieve desired capabilities, from wear resistance to self-repair. In one combination, for example, a particular group of molecules adheres tightly to the surface, anchoring the film and protecting against high-shear collisions. Other molecules “swim” among the anchors to prevent friction.
The NIST team is developing test methods to evaluate new materials and new combinations of materials being considered as lubricants.
An overview of this project (in Adobe Acrobate format) can be found at http://www.msel.nist.gov/nanotribology.pdf.
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