Influence of Environmental Humidity on the Wear and Friction of a Silica/Silicon Tribopair Lubricated with a Hydrophilic Ionic Liquid

Andrea Arcifa, Antonella Rossi, Rosa M. Espinosa-Marzal, Nicholas D. Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this study, the tribological behavior of silica/silicon surfaces lubricated with the ionic liquid 1-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium ethylsulfate ([EMIM] EtSO4) was investigated. Tests were carried out in the presence of either humid air (45-55% relative humidity) or in a nitrogen atmosphere, and the results were compared with those obtained using pure water as a lubricant. The cross-sectional analysis of the contact area performed by focused-ion-beam scanning electron microscopy indicated the presence of cracks in the subsurface region, showing that brittle fracture contributed to wear. Sliding promoted the formation of a third body, the presence of which was indicated by optical and secondary electron microscopy. X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy showed that the third body was mostly composed of silicon oxides. The accumulation of the debris was controlled by the presence of water: in the presence of a nitrogen atmosphere, particles were trapped between the sliding surfaces, whereas in the case of humid air, the debris was progressively removed from the contact. Notably, the presence of trapped particles was associated with higher values of wear coefficients of both disks and pins. In addition, a lower roughness was observed along the direction of sliding in the case of water-containing ionic liquid. The observed trends in wear and the combined results of the various techniques, as well as the comparison with tests carried out in the presence of pure water, all point to the characteristic tribochemical reactions of water with silicon-based materials, namely, the formation of a sacrificial layer of hydrated oxide and the dissociative adsorption of water at crack tips of SiO2. In the absence of water, the lack of a tribochemical mechanism forming a sacrificial layer leads to a microfracture-dominated wear mechanism over the entire duration of the test, thus leading to more severe wear. The possible occurrence of stress-induced phase transformation of silicon during sliding is also discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2961-2973
Number of pages13
JournalACS Applied Materials and Interfaces
Issue number5
StatePublished - Feb 17 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • environment
  • humidity
  • ionic liquids
  • silica
  • silicon
  • surface analysis
  • tribology
  • wear

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Materials Science


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