A vacuum chamber was designed for studying tribological properties of materials under pressures of 5xlO8 Torr to one atmosphere. The chamber is equipped with a pin-on-disk tribometer, in-situ Auger\X-ray photoelectron spectroscopies, a sputter-ion gun and a windowless solid-state X-ray detector. In this paper, we present results of a study using 52100 steel balls sliding on flat disks of the same material in vacuum and in dry air as a function of normal load. The contacts were lubricated with a synthetic hydrocarbon oil (poly-a-olefin). Failure is defined as the point at which the coefficient of friction increases rapidly above the steady state value.
As expected, failure occurs much sooner in vacuum than in dry air. Surface analysis (Auger and XPS) shows direct evidence of the occurrence of high temperature flashes on the surface, which allows the formation and maintenance of a thick oxide in the presence of an adequate supply of oxygen. In addition, a brown film is formed in the vicinity of the wear track for tests performed in dry air, while this film is absent in vacuum. The brown film appears to be a combination of iron oxide and oxidized hydrocarbon from XPS measurements. Results of these studies suggest that the maintenance of an oxide is associated with extended contact life in these studies.