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Reducing Friction in Machines Means Less Drag on the Environment

How Tribology is Aiding the Fight Against Climate Change

Mechanic disassembling car engine. ©FabficaCr
Mechanic disassembling car engine. ©FabficaCr

As pressure mounts to enlist all resources in the fight against global warming, energy efficiency is taking on an expanding role.

One particular field of study is taking the concept of efficiency to another level, literally.

Efficiency on an Atomic Level

Tribology is the study of kinetic properties, or properties related to motion, that have a direct impact on efficiency. Specifically, it examines three related phenomena: friction, wear, and lubrication. The study of these elements of physical resistance often takes place at an atomic or slightly larger nanoscale.

The Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) defines the specialty in relatively mundane terms. It describes the practice simply as the “study of surfaces moving relative to one another.”

A closer look at the three areas of focus provides more detail. Friction is defined as the resistance to motion between two contacting objects or materials. Wear is the loss of mass or material as the result of friction. Finally, lubrication is the use of solutions or solids to help reduce the incidence of friction and wear.

The three areas of study encompass various fields. As a result, tribologists draw their expertise from many different specialties, including mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, chemistry and chemical engineering, and others.

Gears in motion highlight the intricate mechanism of tribology.  ©Ji
Gears in motion highlight the intricate mechanism of tribology. ©Ji

Tribology also has relevance to many different industries and devices because friction and wear occur in so many different processes, and the reduction of both is important to all. Manufacturing, healthcare, sports, and music are a few of the many fields where tribology is applied.

For example, tribology can improve the performance of automobile tires. Friction is essential to a secure grip between the tire and the road. This aids acceleration and safety. On the other hand, all consumers want to minimize wear so their tires will last longer.

Tribology, Energy Efficiency, and Global Warming

Speaking of cars, tribology is proving to be extremely valuable to the broad field of energy efficiency.

Because so much energy is lost to friction in mechanical components, reducing this waste is one of the most effective ways to cut down on energy use. Reducing the energy intake and carbon output of vehicles, buildings, appliances, and any energy-consuming process becomes just as important in the fight against global warming as the use of renewable fuels like solar and wind power.

“[F]inding ways to minimize friction and wear through new technologies in tribology is critical to a greener and more sustainable world.“

As noted by the STLE, “finding ways to minimize friction and wear through new technologies in tribology is critical to a greener and more sustainable world.“

Advances in tribology that improve energy efficiency are mostly occurring in one of three sectors: energy, transportation, and manufacturing. Not coincidentally, these are also some of the biggest energy consumers.

In the field of energy and power, tribology can increase efficiency in many ways. There are numerous opportunities to reduce energy loss throughout the industry, from the initial phase of primary resource production through the generation of electricity, distribution of power, and energy consumption.

For example, lubricants can increase the efficiency of steam and gas turbines used to generate electricity. Similarly, materials applied to bearings and gearboxes increase the efficiency of wind turbines. Changes to the materials used in the inner workings of cooling and heating systems, as well as other appliances, can improve the energy efficiency of buildings.

In the field of transportation, tribology improves the efficiency of all sorts of moving vehicles. It impacts efficiency through improvements to the inner workings of power trains, including gearboxes, engines, transmissions, driveshafts, axles, bearings, and brakes. It also improves traction and reduces the wear of tires and wheels on cars, trucks, and trains.

Assembling and constructing a gas turbine. ©industryview
Assembling and constructing a gas turbine. ©industryview

These improvements can be achieved in many ways. This includes the development of new lubricants and super small, nano composites that reduce friction and wear of gears and bearings. It even extends to innovative engineering of coatings for turbine blades and road surfaces that help reduce friction.

Finally, tribology aids the manufacturing and industrial sectors by increasing the efficiency of machinery and equipment. When tribology methods are applied to transportation and energy production, they can reduce temperatures, increase the lifespan of implements and equipment, improve efficiency, and lower energy consumption in the manufacturing and delivery of products and materials.

Tribology in the Real World

With all these possibilities, tribologists are hard at work exploring new ways to increase efficiency through the reduction of friction and wear and the innovative use of lubricants. Scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals describe various research topics where experts are pursuing advances in the field.

Some of these advances are pushing the boundaries of imagination. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke described, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Tribology may not qualify as magic, but it is taking innovation to levels that the human eye cannot see.

Some researchers have achieved superlubricity using different materials, both solid and liquid, including graphite flakes, graphene, polymers, and even water.

Take, for example, the concept of superlubricity. This occurs when friction has been nearly eliminated. Much of the work in this field has been theoretical. However, the topic has gained increased attention in recent years. Some researchers have achieved superlubricity using different materials, both solid and liquid, including graphite flakes, graphene, polymers, and even water.

Achieving superlubricity in a practical application on a wide scale is still a long way away, but researchers are zeroing in. The benefits could be remarkable. Friction is believed to account for about 30% of the world's total energy consumption. If tribologists could develop methods to achieve superlubricity in practical applications like manufacturing or transportation, the savings would be incredible.

Earlier this year, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) announced they invented a “superlubricity coating” that could dramatically reduce friction in common load-bearing systems with moving parts. The coating reduces the friction of steel rubbing on steel at least a hundredfold.

The invention could be a significant breakthrough because it would make superlubricity accessible to a wide variety of common applications, including vehicle drivetrains as well as wind and hydroelectric turbines.

According to Jun Qu, leader of ORNL’s Surface Engineering and Tribology group, “the main achievement is making superlubricity feasible for the most common applications.”

[The] U.S. economy loses more than $1 trillion (about $3,100 per person in the US) to friction and wear every year.

According to ORNL, the novel coating could be a boon to the U.S. economy, which it says loses more than $1 trillion (about $3,100 per person in the US) to friction and wear every year.

Another sub-specialty—high-temperature tribology—has attracted increased attention in recent years.

When solid surfaces interact in moving situations, like machinery or engine parts, they create intense pressure and heat. This can dramatically impact the surfaces, creating wear and impacting the efficiency of the process.

Much of the research in this area has focused on the automobile manufacturing industry. Vehicles require lightweight materials that must be formed at high temperatures. Advances in tribology can support the production of lightweight materials, improve the efficiency of the process, and increase the longevity of the implements and machinery that are used.

Consuming Energy without Waste

In his 1938 book, Nine Chains to the Moon, architect and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller coined the phrase “ephemeralization.” It refers to the ability of technological advancement to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.”

Advances in energy efficiency are a long way off from allowing humanity to do “everything with nothing,” but research and development are certainly finding new ways to do more while consuming and wasting less.

If society is to win the war against carbon emissions and global warming, efficiency may prove to be one of its most important resources, and in that regard, tribology will play a part.


*Rick Laezman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California, US. He has a passion for energy efficiency and innovation. He has covered renewable power and other related subjects for over ten years.


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