Nanotribology is the study of contact and rubbing at the atomic scale. As physicists, we seek fundamental answers to questions such as "what is the friction coefficient?” and “what makes you feel squeeky clean?” The prefix "nano" refers to the atomic scale, and "tribos" is a Greek word for rubbing. Hence the term nanotribology!
In our lab, we measure friction in microscopic systems with fast sliding speeds. In a typical experiment, a sapphire sphere rubs against a gold surface lubricated with just one layer of molecules. We would like to determine the relationship between the molecular structure of the lubricant layer and the levels of friction observed. This will lead to insights into the atomic-level processes that give rise to the force of friction, and to the heating of surfaces when rubbed together. For a real-life example, rub your hands together vigorously, feel the heat, and think about the atoms and molecules in your skin!
Why do we do this research? Well, as machines and devices get smaller, the forces between surfaces become more and more important to the operation of the device. A new generation of "micromachines" may be on the way, if only scientists and engineers can figure out reliable ways to lubricate the tiny moving parts and keep the machines going for a long time. Often what is needed is a lubricant film just one single molecule thick! There are all kinds of new physics to discover working in this regime of small fast-moving contacts. When these fundamental insights are applied successfully to micromachines, we may see an amazing variety of new devices in the areas such as electronic and optical communication, health care, and remote sensing.