The tribological study of materials inherently involves the interaction of surface asperities at the micro to nanoscopic length scales. This is the case for large scale engineering applications with sliding contacts, where the real area of contact is made up of small contacting asperities that make up only a fraction of the apparent area of contact. This is why researchers have sought to create idealized experiments of single asperity contacts in the field of nanotribology. At the same time, small scale engineering structures known as micro- and nano-electromechanical systems (MEMS and NEMS) have been developed, where the apparent area of contact approaches the length scale of the asperities, meaning the real area of contact for these devices may be only a few asperities. This is essentially the field of microtribology, where the contact size and/or forces involved have pushed the nature of the interaction between two surfaces towards the regime where the scale of the interaction approaches that of the natural length scale of the features on the surface. This paper provides a review of microtribology with the purpose to understand how tribological processes are different at the smaller length scales compared to macrotribology. Studies of the interfacial phenomena at the macroscopic length scales (e.g., using in situ tribometry) will be discussed and correlated with new findings and methodologies at the micro-length scale.
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