Detachment fronts and the onset of dynamic friction

Shmuel M. Rubinstein, Gil Cohen and Jay Fineberg

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The dynamics of friction have been studied for hundreds of years, yet many aspects of these everyday processes are not understood. One such aspect is the onset of frictional motion (slip). First described more than 200 years ago as the transition from static to dynamic friction, the onset of slip is central to fields as diverse as physics1, 2, 3, tribology4, 5, mechanics of earthquakes6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and fracture12, 13, 14. Here we show that the onset of frictional slip is governed by three different types of coherent crack-like fronts: these are observed by real-time visualization of the net contact area that forms the interface separating two blocks of like material. Two of these fronts, which propagate at subsonic and intersonic velocities, have been the subject of intensive recent interest12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. We show that a third type of front, which propagates an order of magnitude more slowly, is the dominant mechanism for the rupture of the interface. No overall motion (sliding) of the blocks occurs until either of the slower two fronts traverses the entire interface.