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


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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Figure 1: Lateral force versus nominal lateral displacement data for typical SA-SHS tests after stationary holds at 60% RH.
Figure 2: The quasi-static discrete asperity model.
Figure 3: Normalized friction–displacement curves from three sequential SA-SHS tests.
Figure 4: Three SA-SHS tests between a silica tip and three different surfaces.


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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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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.

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Correspondence to Robert W. Carpick.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Li, Q., Tullis, T., Goldsby, D. et al. Frictional ageing from interfacial bonding and the origins of rate and state friction. Nature 480, 233–236 (2011).

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