Nanotribology: a Burgeoning Scientific Frontier

The phenomenon of friction and wear has been investigated by scientists and engineers for over 500 years, starting with Leonardo Da Vinci. But in our attempts to make machines do more and on a smaller scale, the study of friction on the atomic level becomes ultimately important. Thus the race is underway to explore science’s newest frontier— nanotribology—and Penn Engineering is emphasizing translating research into real-world application.

In order to deliver real-world commercial applications, the fundamentals that underpin tribology (the science and engineering of interacting surfaces in relative motion, and the resulting phenomena of friction, adhesion, wear and lubrication) have to be explored on the nano level.

“If we can reduce friction and wear on the atomic level, we can impact society for the better,” says Dr. Robert W. Carpick, professor in the department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, who also holds a secondary appointment in the department of Materials Science and Engineering. “What we accomplish from research helps us better understand how to apply that knowledge to commercial interests.”

While the atomic world is infinitesimal, the commercialization potential for nanotribology is enormous. Imagine the implications of being able to replace transistors with mechanical switches capable of functioning without wasting energy. Consider the benefits of being able to modify the surfaces of orthopedic implants so that wear becomes a non-issue and implant patients no longer outlive the usefulness of their artificial joints. “Across the board, nanotribology can have a real-world impact,” says Carpick.

“Rob Carpick is defining the boundaries of the oldest, broadest and most mature engineering discipline by characterizing the nano-scale mechanics between contacting surfaces to understand friction and to synthesize novel materials with unique frictional properties,” says Vijay Kumar, then chairman of the department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. “He has established our department and school as a leader in nano mechanics.”

For Carpick and the students he works with, nanotribology is the ultimate puzzle. “We consider two materials that can’t be seen, that meet and start sliding. We have to create new ways to figure out what is going on in that invisible universe,” Carpick says. “Once we learn how to observe what is going on in that environment, we have to be prepared to understand that the fundamentals in the macroscopic world do not always apply to the nanoscale world. That’s the challenge and that’s the excitement.”


Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Nanotribology: A Burgeoning Scientific Frontier,” by Amy Biemiller.

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Robert Carpick's Faculty Profile
Carpick Research Group

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