Tribology Letters

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 257–271 | Cite as

On the Application of Transition State Theory to Atomic-Scale Wear

  • Tevis D. B. Jacobs
  • Bernd Gotsmann
  • Mark A. Lantz
  • Robert W. CarpickEmail author
Original Paper


The atomic force microscope (AFM) tip is often used as a model of a single sliding asperity in order to study nanotribological phenomena including friction, adhesion, and wear. In particular, recent work has demonstrated a wear regime in which surface modification appears to occur in an atom-by-atom fashion. Several authors have modeled this atomic-scale wear behavior as a thermally activated bond breaking process. The present article reviews this body of work in light of concepts from formal transition state theory (also called reaction rate theory). It is found that this framework is viable as one possible description of atomic-scale wear, with impressive agreements to experimental trends found. However, further experimental work is required to fully validate this approach. It is also found that, while the Arrhenius-type equations have been widely used, there is insufficient discussion of or agreement on the specific atomic-scale reaction that is thermally activated, or its dependence on stresses and sliding velocity. Further, lacking a clear picture of the underlying mechanism, a consensus on how to measure or interpret the activation volume and activation energy is yet to emerge. This article makes suggestions for measuring and interpreting such parameters, and provides a picture of one possible thermally activated transition (in its initial, activated, and final states). Finally, directions for further experimental and simulation work are proposed for validating and extending this model and rationally interrogating the behavior of this type of wear.


Nanotribology Contact mechanics AFM Unlubricated wear Wear mechanisms 



RWC gratefully acknowledges financial support from the National Science Foundation under grant CMMI-0826076. Acknowledgment is made to the Donors of the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund for partial support of this research. Illuminating discussions with Professors Vaclav Vitek and Mahadevan Khantha are gratefully acknowledged.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tevis D. B. Jacobs
    • 1
  • Bernd Gotsmann
    • 2
  • Mark A. Lantz
    • 2
  • Robert W. Carpick
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Materials Science and EngineeringUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.IBM Research, ZurichRueschlikonSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied MechanicsUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

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