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Frictional ageing from interfacial bonding and the origins of rate and state friction

Nature volume 480, pages 233236 (08 December 2011) | Download Citation


Earthquakes have long been recognized as being the result of stick–slip frictional instabilities1,2. Over the past few decades, laboratory studies of rock friction have elucidated many aspects of tectonic fault zone processes and earthquake phenomena3,4,5. Typically, the static friction of rocks grows logarithmically with time when they are held in stationary contact6, but the mechanism responsible for this strengthening is not understood. This time-dependent increase of frictional strength, or frictional ageing, is one manifestation of the ‘evolution effect’ in rate and state friction theory5. A prevailing view is that the time dependence of rock friction results from increases in contact area caused by creep of contacting asperities7,8. Here we present the results of atomic force microscopy experiments that instead show that frictional ageing arises from the formation of interfacial chemical bonds, and the large magnitude of ageing at the nanometre scale is quantitatively consistent with what is required to explain observations in macroscopic rock friction experiments. The relative magnitude of the evolution effect compared with that of the ‘direct effect’—the dependence of friction on instantaneous changes in slip velocity—determine whether unstable slip, leading to earthquakes, is possible9,10. Understanding the mechanism underlying the evolution effect would enable us to formulate physically based frictional constitutive laws, rather than the current empirically based ‘laws’11,12, allowing more confident extrapolation to natural faults.

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We thank M.O. Robbins, I. Szlufarska and Y. Liu for discussions. We acknowledge support from the National Science Foundation under awards EAR0810088 and EAR0810192.

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Author notes

    • Qunyang Li

    Present address: School of Aerospace, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China.


  1. Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA

    • Qunyang Li
    •  & Robert W. Carpick
  2. Department of Geological Sciences, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • Terry E. Tullis
    •  & David Goldsby


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Q.L. performed experiments and obtained the data, and analysed the data with input from all other authors. All four authors wrote this manuscript together. D.G. prepared some of the tips used for the experiments.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert W. Carpick.

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