What Is the Coefficient of Friction?

Vincent Summers
Vincent Summers
Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

Friction is the heat producing resistive force generated by the motion of two contacting surfaces against each other. It is indirectly the product of one of the four known fundamental forces. The friction of a system is impossible to predetermine strictly from theoretical first principles. Mathematically, the expression for friction includes a single constant that incorporates all causative factors — a coefficient of friction (COF), symbolized by the Greek letter, μ. The equation is simply written fx = μxF, where fx defines the form and measure of friction, while F is the perpendicular or "normal" force exerted by both surfaces, one upon the other.

All coefficients of friction are dimensionless, scalar quantities; individual contributing factors resist complete explanation or quantification. The fundamental force responsible for most friction is also the one that enables the formation of chemical bonds — the electrostatic force. On initial consideration, it might seem that gravity is the source of friction, since the downward force due to gravity is the source of the variable F. Actually, though, the coefficient is a measure of the "stickiness" between the two surfaces, and that is determined at the microscopic level by the electrical charges tending to prevent motion by “binding” them together. Such binding is a characteristic of adhesives used to cement two surfaces together.

That this is the case is well illustrated by the modern polymer, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Best known under its DuPont™ brand name, Teflon®, PTFE exhibits only the very weakly attractive London dispersion electrostatic forces. This gives PTFE a coefficient of friction among the "top three" known — approximately 0.05-0.10. If the coefficient of friction was the product of gravity, the chemistry of the surfaces would not matter, and such substances as would not be as economically important as they are.

There are ways of lowering friction without, in some sense, changing the materials from which the surfaces are made. Coefficient of friction for a system may be effectively lessened by providing a thin layer of lubricant. Alternatively, it is often possible to lower friction by inserting a blanket of gas between the surfaces, which lessens the apparent weight of the surface on top and eliminates manufacturing flaws, such as surface roughness. The change in effective weight lowers the normal force, while the lack of flaws changes the coefficient of friction; both mathematically lower the resultant force of friction. Engineers have utilized the gas-layer phenomenon to develop hovercraft for travel across both land and water surfaces.

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Discussion Comments


@MrMoody - This is one reason that you need to change the oil in your car. Oil acts as a lubricant for making the metal parts in your engine move easily. If the lubricant wears down, those metal parts will begin to grate against each other.

I don’t know what the numerical value is for oil from a frictional standpoint but I know that you need to change it every 3,000 miles to keep it fresh and working at optimal capacity.

They say for some of the newer cars you could go for 6,000 miles but I would stay on the safe side, and go for 3,000 miles nonetheless.


If you’ve ever played a game of air hockey, you’ve seen a good example of the coefficient of friction. The pockets of air cause the puck to lift, ever so slightly, so that it can glide effortlessly across the board. I think different materials affect the coefficient of friction too; a wooden board has a different effect than a metal board would or something made out of rubber.

I didn’t learn this stuff because I am a genius. I actually had to help my daughter with her physics homework and this was one of the topics. Different materials have different values that indicate how smooth or rough they are in their interaction with other materials.

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