Thursday, July 17, 2008

Water, not Graphite, Makes Diamond Slippery

Experiments performed at Penn State, 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 legitimacy of this hypothesis. The PEEM instrument, part of the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, allowed the group to image and identify the chemical changes on the diamond surface that occurred during the sliding experiment.
The team tested a thin film form of diamond known as ultrananocrystalline diamond and found super low friction (a friction coefficient ~0.01, which is more slippery than typical ice) and low wear, even in extremely dry conditions, (relative humidity ~1.0%). Using a microtribometer, a precise friction tester, and x-ray photoelectron emission microscopy, a spatially resolved x-ray spectroscopy technique, they examined wear tracks produced by sliding ultrananocrystalline diamond surfaces together at different relative humidities and loads. They found no detectable formation of graphite and just a small amount of carbon re-bonded from diamond to amorphous carbon. However, oxygen was present on the worn part of the surface, indicating that bonds broken during sliding were eventually passivated by the water molecules in the environment.
The abstract of the study, “Origin of ultralow friction and wear in ultrananocrystalline diamond,” is available here http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id=PRLTAO000100000023235502000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=Yes

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