We present experimental evidence for a new mechanism for how smooth surfaces emerge during repetitive sliding contacts, as in polishing. Electron microscopy observations of Ti-6Al-4V surface with a spherical asperity structure—realized via additive manufacturing—during successive polishing stages suggest that asperity-abrasive contacts exhibit viscous behavior, where the asperity material flows in the form of thin (1–10 μm) fluid-like layers. Subsequent bridging of these layers among neighboring asperities results in progressive surface smoothening. Using analytical asperity-abrasive contact temperature modeling and microstructural characterization, we show that the sliding contacts encounter flash temperatures of the order of 700–900 K which is in the range of the dynamic recrystallization temperature of the material considered, thus supporting the experimental observations. Besides providing a new perspective on the long-held mechanism of polishing, our observations provide a novel approach based on graph theory to quantitatively characterize the evolution of surface morphology. Results suggest that the graph representation offers a more efficient measure to characterize the surface morphology emerging at various stages of polishing. The research findings and observations are of broad relevance to the understanding of plastic flow behavior of sliding contacts ubiquitous in materials processing, tribology, and natural geological processes as well as present unique opportunities to tailor the microstructures by controlling the thermomechanics of the asperity-abrasive contacts.
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