Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Boundary lubrication under water


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Normal interactions F/R between DDunAB-coated crossed-cylindrical mica surfaces (radius of curvature R is 1 cm), as a function of closest separation D.
Figure 2: Characteristics of measured friction between two DDunAB-coated surfaces in adhesive contact.
Figure 3: Dependence of friction force Fs between surfactant layers in initial contact in water on the sliding velocity vs.
Figure 4: Loading–unloading profiles of contacting DDunAB (10 min) layers showing variation of contact area A with load L.


  1. Bowden, F. P. & Tabor, D. D. The Friction and Lubrication of Solids Vols I and II (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 1950, 1964)

  2. Briscoe, B. J. & Evans, D. C. B. The shear properties of Langmuir-Blodgett layers. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 380, 389–407 (1982)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Yoshizawa, H., Chen, Y-L. & Israelachvili, J. Fundamental mechanisms of interfacial friction. 1. Relation between adhesion and friction. J. Phys. Chem. 97, 4128–4140 (1993)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Zhang, L., Li, L., Chen, S. & Jiang, S. Measurements of friction and adhesion for alkyl monolayers on Si(111) by scanning force microscopy. Langmuir 18, 5448–5456 (2002)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Grant, L. M. & Tiberg, F. Normal and lateral forces between lipid covered solids in solutions: correlation between layer packing and structure. Biophys. J. 82, 1373–1385 (2002)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Suda, H. Origin of friction derived from rupture dynamics. Langmuir 17, 6045–6047 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Zilberman, S., Persson, B. N. J. & Nitzan, A. Theory and simulations of squeeze-out dynamics in boundary lubrication. J. Chem. Phys. 115, 11268–11277 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Hills, B. A. Boundary lubrication in vivo. Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. H 214, 83–94 (2000)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Sarma, A. V., Powell, G. L. & LaBerge, M. Phospholipid composition of articular cartilage boundary lubricant. J. Orthop. Res. 19, 671–676 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Drummond, C., Israelachvili, J. & Richetti, P. Friction between two weakly adhering boundary lubricated surfaces in water. Phys. Rev. E 67, 066110 (2003)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Klein, J. & Kumacheva, E. Simple liquids confined to molecularly thin layers. I. Confinement-induced liquid to solid phase transitions. J. Chem. Phys. 108, 6996–7009 (1998)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. McGillivray, D. J., Thomas, R. K., Rennie, A. R., Penfold, J. & Sivia, D. S. Ordered structures observed at the silicon-water interface for di-chain cationic surfactants. Langmuir 19, 7719–7726 (2003)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Derjaguin, B. V., Churaev, N. V. & Muller, V. M. Surface Forces Ch. 4 and 8 (Consultants Bureau, New York, 1987)

  14. Christenson, H. K. & Claesson, P. M. Direct measurements of the forces between hydrophobic surfaces in water. Adv. Colloid Interf. Sci. 91, 391–436 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Johnson, K. L., Kendall, K. & Roberts, A. D. Surface Mechanics and the contact of elastic solids. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 324, 301–313 (1971)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Yamada, S. & Israelachvili, J. N. Friction and adhesion hysteresis of fluorocarbon surfactant monolayer-coated surfaces measured with the surface forces apparatus. J. Phys. Chem. B 102, 234–244 (1998)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Chen, Y. L. & Israelachvili, J. N. Effects of ambient conditions on adsorbed surfactant and polymer monolayers. J. Phys. Chem. 96, 7752–7760 (1992)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Williams-Daryn, S., Thomas, R. K., Castro, M. A. & Becerro, A. Structure of complexes of Vermiculite intercalated by cationic surfactants. J. Colloid Interf. Sci. 256, 314–324 (2002)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Wennerstrom, H., Persson, N. O. & Lindman, B. in Colloidal Dispersions and Micellar Behaviour (ed. Mittal, K. L.) Ch. 18 253–269 (ACS Symp. Ser. 9, American Chemical Society, Washington, 1975)

  20. Hamnerius, Y., Lundström, I., Paulsson, L. E., Fontell, K. & Wennerström, H. Dielectric properties of lamellar lipid water phases. Chem. Phys. Lipids 22, 135–140 (1978)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Raviv, U. & Klein, J. Fluidity of bound hydration layers. Science 297, 1540–1543 (2002)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Raviv, U., Giasson, S., Gohy, J-F., Jerome, R. & Klein, J. Lubrication by charged polymers. Nature 425, 163–165 (2003)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Chen, Y. L. E., Gee, M. L., Helm, C. A., Israelachvili, J. N. & McGuiggan, P. M. Effects of humidity on the structure and adhesion of amphiphilic monolayers on mica. J. Phys. Chem. 93, 7057–7059 (1989)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Langmuir, I. Overturning and anchoring of monolayers. Science 87, 493–500 (1938)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Vecchio, P., Thomas, K. & Hills, B. A. Surfactant treatment for osteoarthritis. Rheumatology 38, 1020–1021 (1999)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Stern, H. A. & Feller, S. E. Calculation of the dielectric permittivity profile for a nonuniform system. J. Chem. Phys. 118, 3401–3412 (2003)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Teschke, O., Ceotto, G. & de Souza, E. F. Dielectric exchange force: a convenient technique for measuring the interfacial water relative permittivity profile. Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 3, 3761–3768 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


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

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jacob Klein.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

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)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Briscoe, W., Titmuss, S., Tiberg, F. et al. Boundary lubrication under water. Nature 444, 191–194 (2006).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing