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Several other nano “lubrication” methods have been tried, including slowing down the movement of mechanical parts to a crawl; but these have been impractical – many devices, for example, need to move at relatively high speeds. In an earlier study, the authors of the current work also showed that carefully decreasing the amount of pressure between two surfaces could decrease friction; but this proved difficult to control.

The new method, which promises to be much more practical, solves a key part of the wear problems that reduces the reliability of Millipede-type memory chips, says Georgia Tech mechanical engineering professor William King, who worked on IBM’s Millipede system and is now scientific advisor for a startup company, Nanochip, in Freemont, CA, that’s developing a similar memory based on MEMS and arrays of atomic force microscopy tips. King notes, however, that wear from other mechanisms, such as chemical changes in the material over time, is still a problem.

Robert Carpick, professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that further research needs to be done before this method can be used in actual MEMS and NEMS, but that it’s an important study. “What devices could this enable? It’s up to the imagination, ultimately. A lot remains to be done, but it really is a remarkable result,” he says.

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