A theoretical study of friction between solids that looks at the process just one molecule at a time could soon lead to a more effective way to stop cars in an emergency than simply slamming on the brakes or using ABS. This research is reported today in a special Einstein Year issue of the New Journal of Physics (www.njp.org) published jointly by the Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft).
Scientists and engineers have assimilated an enormous amount of empirical information on the processes taking place when two surfaces rub against each other producing friction. They have even devised numerous physical rules and laws to explain these forces. These laws are adequate for most practical purposes, but according to Peter Reimann and colleagues, our understanding of how friction is traced back to the behaviour of solids at the molecular level where surfaces meet is still far from complete. He and his colleagues hope to improve our fundamental understanding of the microscopic laws governing materials in contact.
"In our work, we consider theoretically a somewhat simplified setup," explains Reimann, "This consists of a single, very small point, which is pulled over an atomically flat surface." This, Reimann explains further, is an exceptionally simple and well controlled "minimal" system that allows he and his team to study the forces between the point and the surface. Experimentalists studying friction use a similar setup to measure the actual forces involved.
David Reid | EurekAlert!
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