Tuning friction atom-by-atom in an ion-crystal simulator

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Science  05 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6239, pp. 1115-1118
DOI: 10.1126/science.1261422

A frigid simulator for friction

Friction can be a friend or a foe, depending on whether we are trying to brake on a slippery road or to protect moving parts in industrial equipment. It results from the forces between atoms on the two surfaces in contact, but the details of the process are not well understood. Bylinskii et al. constructed a tunable friction simulator out of a handful of cold trapped ions that move in the potential of an optical lattice (see the Perspective by Meyer). They could vary the friction force experienced by the ions from maximal to nearly zero simply by changing the spatial arrangement of the ion array with respect to the optical lattice.

Science, this issue p. 1115; see also p. 1089


Friction between ordered, atomically smooth surfaces at the nanoscale (nanofriction) is often governed by stick-slip processes. To test long-standing atomistic models of such processes, we implemented a synthetic nanofriction interface between a laser-cooled Coulomb crystal of individually addressable ions as the moving object and a periodic light-field potential as the substrate. We show that stick-slip friction can be tuned from maximal to nearly frictionless via arrangement of the ions relative to the substrate. By varying the ion number, we also show that this strong dependence of friction on the structural mismatch, as predicted by many-particle models, already emerges at the level of two or three atoms. This model system enables a microscopic and systematic investigation of friction, potentially even into the quantum many-body regime.

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