Adhesion-dependent negative friction coefficient on chemically modified graphite at the nanoscale

Nat Mater. 2012 Dec;11(12):1032-7. doi: 10.1038/nmat3452. Epub 2012 Oct 14.


From the early tribological studies of Leonardo da Vinci to Amontons' law, friction has been shown to increase with increasing normal load. This trend continues to hold at the nanoscale, where friction can vary nonlinearly with normal load. Here we present nanoscale friction force microscopy (FFM) experiments for a nanoscale probe tip sliding on a chemically modified graphite surface in an atomic force microscope (AFM). Our results demonstrate that, when adhesion between the AFM tip and surface is enhanced relative to the exfoliation energy of graphite, friction can increase as the load decreases under tip retraction. This leads to the emergence of an effectively negative coefficient of friction in the low-load regime. We show that the magnitude of this coefficient depends on the ratio of tip-sample adhesion to the exfoliation energy of graphite. Through both atomistic- and continuum-based simulations, we attribute this unusual phenomenon to a reversible partial delamination of the topmost atomic layers, which then mimic few- to single-layer graphene. Lifting of these layers with the AFM tip leads to greater deformability of the surface with decreasing applied load. This discovery suggests that the lamellar nature of graphite yields nanoscale tribological properties outside the predictive capacity of existing continuum mechanical models.