It’s all too tempting to imagine that our macroscopic intuitions can be transferred to the nanoscale world, but these analogies can be dangerous and misleading. For an example, take the case of the buckyball bearings. It seems obvious that the almost perfectly spherical C60 molecule, Buckminster fullerene, would be an ideal ball bearing on the nanoscale. This intuition underlies, for example, the design of the “nanocar”, from James Tour’s group in Rice, that recently made headlines. But a recent experimental study of nanoscale friction by Jackie Krim, from North Caroline State University, shows that this intuition may be flawed.
The study, reported in last week’s Physical Review Letters (abstract here, subscription required for full article), directly measured the friction experienced by a thin layer sliding on a surface coated with a layer of buckminster fullerene molecules. Krim was able to directly compare the friction observed when the balls were allowed to rotate, with the situation when the balls were fixed. Surprisingly, the friction was higher for the rotating layers – here the ball-bearing analogy is seductive, but wrong.