PHILADELPHIA - They call diamonds "ice," and not just because they sparkle. Engineers and physicists have long studied diamond because even though the material is as hard as an ice ball to the head, diamond slips and slides with remarkably low friction, making it an ideal material or coating for seals, high performance tools and high-tech moving parts.
Robert Carpick, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania, and his group led a collaboration with researchers from Argonne National Laboratories, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Florida to determine what makes diamond films such slippery customers, settling a debate on the scientific origin of its properties and providing new knowledge that will help create the next generation of super low friction materials.
The Penn experiments, the first study of diamond friction convincingly supported by spectroscopy, looked at two of the main hypotheses posited for years as to why diamonds demonstrate such low friction and wear properties. Using a highly specialized technique know as photoelectron emission microscopy, or PEEM, the study reveals that this slippery behavior comes from passivation of atomic bonds at the diamond surface that were broken during sliding and not from the diamond turning into its more stable form, graphite. The bonds are passivated by dissociative adsorption of water molecules from the surrounding environment. The researchers also found that friction increases dramatically if there is not enough water vapor in the environment.
Some previous explanations for the source of diamond's super low friction and wear assumed that the friction between sliding diamond surfaces imparted energy to the material, converting diamond into graphite, itself a lubricating material. However, until this study no detailed spectroscopic tests had ever been performed to determine the legit
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University of Pennsylvania