What Causes Friction?

Joel Penner/CC-BY 2.0

The primary causes of friction are surface roughness, the plowing effect and molecular adhesion. Surface roughness is when serious abrasion occurs due to the roughness of the materials in contact. The plowing effect involves deformations of the objects that cause resistance to movement when the materials are relatively soft.

Adhesion refers to the molecular force that results from two materials brought into close contact with one another. To slide objects against each other, it is essential to break the adhesive bonds between them. According to recent scientific studies, friction occurs because of adhesive forces between materials. Ultra-smooth and sticky materials fall under the molecular adhesion category.

There are varying degrees of surface roughness in solid materials. Even a smooth surface has small bumps that interfere with sliding motion. When the surfaces of two hard, solid materials are very rough, friction occurs due to the abrasion that happens when two objects slide against each other.

Deformations are another cause of friction. Deformations form when soft materials deform under pressure and lead to an increase in resistance to motion. For example, when a person stands on a rug, he sinks in slightly, causing resistance as he drags his feet along the rug’s surface. Resistive force is created, and friction occurs when the deformation becomes large.