Truth That's Stranger Than Friction

RESEARCHERS AT OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY HAVE MEAsured the friction of one atom rubbing against another--and it's not what textbooks say it should be. At the atomic level, explains Bharat Bhushan, head of OSU's microtribology work, the classical theory of friction doesn't hold up. So for tomorrow's nanotechnology products, which will get stitched together atom by atom, a new theory of friction will be necessary. A paper co-authored by Bhushan in the Apr. 13 Nature outlines the implications--not all of which are in the distant future.

Within five years, Bhushan believes the new theory of friction could yield far smaller computer hard drives. His team has tested supersmooth aluminum surfaces, similar to the platters used in hard drives, that were lubricated with a film only one molecule thick. The film resisted abrasion 80 times better than predicted. Thus, a hard drive's read/write head could be reduced to a fraction of its current size and moved closer to the disk. This would decrease the size of the area needed to store bits of data, increasing capacity by as much as 400 times.

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