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Boundary lubrication under water

Naturevolume 444pages191194 (2006) | Download Citation



Boundary lubrication, in which the rubbing surfaces are coated with molecular monolayers, has been studied extensively for over half a century1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Such monolayers generally consist of amphiphilic surfactants anchored by their polar headgroups; sliding occurs at the interface between the layers, greatly reducing friction and especially wear of the underlying substrates. This process, widespread in engineering applications, is also predicted to occur in biological lubrication via phospholipid films8,9, though few systematic studies on friction between surfactant layers in aqueous environments have been carried out5,10. Here we show that the frictional stress between two sliding surfaces bearing surfactant monolayers may decrease, when immersed in water, to as little as one per cent or less of its value in air (or oil). We attribute this to the shift of the slip plane from between the surfactant layers, to the surfactant/substrate interface. The low friction would then be due to the fluid hydration layers surrounding the polar head groups attached to the substrate. These results may have implications for future technological and biomedical applications.

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We thank M. Chen and P.X. Li for experimental assistance, and I. Dunlop, J. Israelachvili, S. Perkin and B. Roux for comments. Financial support from the EPSRC (UK) and from the Israel Science Foundation (J.K.) is acknowledged with thanks.

Author information

Author notes

    • Fredrik Tiberg

    Present address: Camrus AB, Ideon Science Park, Sölvegatan 41, SE-223 70, Lund, Sweden

    • Duncan J. McGillivray

    Present address: Department of Biophysics, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, 21218, USA


  1. Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3QZ, UK

    • Wuge H. Briscoe
    • , Simon Titmuss
    • , Fredrik Tiberg
    • , Robert K. Thomas
    • , Duncan J. McGillivray
    •  & Jacob Klein
  2. Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, 76100, Israel

    • Jacob Klein


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Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jacob Klein.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Notes

    This presents neutron reflectometry data on layers of the Gemini surfactant (referred to in the text) on a silica surface immersed in water, showing that their C6 spacer group lies flat adjacent to the surface. (PDF 97 kb)

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