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Tribology. Mechanisms of antiwear tribofilm growth revealed in situ by single-asperity sliding contacts.


Zinc dialkyldithiophosphates (ZDDPs) form antiwear tribofilms at sliding interfaces and are widely used as additives in automotive lubricants. The mechanisms governing the tribofilm growth are not well understood, which limits the development of replacements that offer better performance and are less likely to degrade automobile catalytic converters over time. Using atomic force microscopy in ZDDP-containing lubricant base stock at elevated temperatures, we monitored the growth and properties of the tribofilms in situ in well-defined single-asperity sliding nanocontacts. Surface-based nucleation, growth, and thickness saturation of patchy tribofilms were observed. The growth rate increased exponentially with either applied compressive stress or temperature, consistent with a thermally activated, stress-assisted reaction rate model. Although some models rely on the presence of iron to catalyze tribofilm growth, the films grew regardless of the presence of iron on either the tip or substrate, highlighting the critical role of stress and thermal activation.