Strength by atomic force microscopy (AFM): Molecular dynamics of water layer squeezing on magnesium oxide

Kevin Kendall, Aman Dhir, CW Yong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

5 Citations (Scopus)


Localised strength testing of materials is often carried out in an atomic force microscope (AFM), as foreseen by Kelly in his book Strong Solids (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1966). During AFM indentation experiments, contamination can strongly influence the observed strength and theoretical interpretation of the results is a major problem. Here, we use molecular dynamics computer modelling to describe the contact of NaCl and MgO crystal probes onto surfaces, comparable to an AFM experiment. Clean NaCl gave elastic, brittle behaviour in contact simulations at 300 K, whereas MgO was more plastic, leading to increased toughness. This paper also considers the strength of an oxide substrate contaminated by water molecules and tested by indentation with a pyramidal probe of oxide crystal. Recent theory on the effect of liquid contaminant layers on surface strength has been mainly focussed on Lennard Jones (LJ) molecules with some studies on alcohols and water, described by molecular dynamics, which allows the molecules to be squeezed out as the crystal lattice is deformed. In this work, we have focused on water by studying the forces between a magnesium oxide (MgO) atomic force microscope (AFM) probe and an MgO slab. Force versus separation has been plotted as the AFM probe was moved towards and away from the substrate. Simulation results showed that the water layers could be removed in steps, giving up to four force peaks. The last monolayer of water could not be squeezed out, even at pressures where MgO deformed plastically. Interestingly, with water present, strength was reduced, but more in tensile than compressive measurements. In conclusion, water contaminating the oxide surface in AFM strength testing is structured. Water layer squeezing removal can be predicted by molecular modelling, which may be verified by AFM experiments to show that water can influence the strength of perfect crystals at the nanometre scale.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4117-4128
Number of pages12
JournalPhilosophical Magazine
Issue number31-32
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2010


  • MgO
  • AFM
  • water squeezing
  • molecular dynamics model


Dive into the research topics of 'Strength by atomic force microscopy (AFM): Molecular dynamics of water layer squeezing on magnesium oxide'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this