Friction is one of the most important and unappreciated forces in nature. It is the reason cars’ tires grip the road and handle turns while remaining in control. It is also one of the major reasons your car’s gas millage isn’t what it could be. What if there was a way to keep the helpful aspects of friction while removing the bad ones.
The oil in your car serves as a lubrication system which reduces friction quite a lot by coming between two surfaces that are rubbing together. This system allows cars to have long lives without wearing out, and gives pretty good gas millage. But what if there was a way to totally eliminate friction so that cars could travel much farther on a single gallon of gas and would last much longer without costly maintenance.
To create a system with almost no friction the fundamental mechanics behind friction must be understood. On a large scale friction is caused by tiny ridges in the surface of one material grabbing on to ridges in the other. This has been known for a while but researchers have just found a way to understand what’s happening at an atomic level.
They created a surface of charged ions then shot a laser over the surface. The charge in the ions refracted the laser in ways that allowed the researchers to measure the forces involved in friction on an atom by atom basis. This system was only conceived a few years ago and it give researchers a powerful tool in the hunt for practically friction free surfaces.
A more technical and in depth discussion of this research can be found here: http://www.nature.com/news/friction-of-a-single-atom-measured-with-light-1.17698