The achievement of the superlubricity regime, with a friction coefficient below 0.01, is the Holy Grail of many tribological applications, with the potential to have a remarkable impact on economic and environmental issues. Based on a combined high-resolution photoemission and soft X-ray absorption study, we report that superlubricity can be realized for engineering applications in bearing steel coated with ultra-smooth tetrahedral amorphous carbon (ta-C) under oleic acid lubrication. The results show that tribochemical reactions promoted by the oil lubrication generate strong structural changes in the carbon hybridization of the ta-C hydrogen-free carbon, with initially high sp 3 content. Interestingly, the macroscopic superlow friction regime of moving mechanical assemblies coated with ta-C can be attributed to a few partially oxidized graphene-like sheets, with a thickness of not more than 1 nm, formed at the surface inside the wear scar. The sp2 planar carbon and oxygen-derived species are the hallmark of these mesoscopic surface structures created on top of colliding asperities as a result of the tribochemical reactions induced by the oleic acid lubrication. Atomistic simulations elucidate the tribo-formation of such graphene-like structures, providing the link between the overall atomistic mechanism and the macroscopic experimental observations of green superlubricity in the investigated ta-C/oleic acid tribological systems.
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