Nanometer-Scale Distribution of a Lubricant Modifier on Iron Films: A Frequency-Modulation Atomic Force Microscopy Study Combined with a Friction Test

Liquid lubricants used in mechanical applications are low-vapor-pressure hydrocarbons modified with a small quantity of polar compounds. The polar modifiers adsorbed on the surface of sliding solids dominate the friction properties when the sliding surfaces are in close proximity. However, a few methods are available for the characterization of the adsorbed modifiers of a nanometer-scale thickness. In this study, we applied frequency-modulation atomic force microscopy to evaluate the vertical and lateral density distributions of the adsorbed modifier in a real lubricant, namely, poly-α-olefin (PAO) modified with an orthophosphoric acid oleyl ester. The liquid-induced force on the probing tip was mapped on a plane that was perpendicular to the lubricant–iron interface with a force sensitivity on the order of 10 pN. The PAO in the absence of the ester modifier was directly exposed to the film, which produced a few liquid layers parallel to the film surface with layer-to-layer distances of 0.6–0.7 nm. A monomolecular layer of the modifier was intermittently adsorbed with increasing ester concentration in the bulk lubricant, with complete coverage seen at 20 ppm. The C18H35 chains of the oleyl esters fluctuating in the lubricant produced a repulsive force on the tip, which monotonically decayed with the tip-to-surface distance. The dynamic friction coefficient of sliding steel–lubricant–steel interfaces, which was separately determined using a friction tester, was compared with the force map determined on the iron film immersed in the corresponding lubricant. The complete monomolecular layer of the ester modifier on the static lubricant–iron boundary is a requirement for achieving smooth and stable friction at the sliding interface.