What is Tribology?

Since most people I meet usually ask me what Tribology is and what am I actually studying, here’s a post to clarify and maybe teach you something new. 🙂

Tribology is a specialised interdisciplinary field within Mechanical engineering, dealing with friction, lubrication and wear phenomena, which was born in the 1960s. Unless you come from a tech background, that probably hasn’t clarified much, so let’s recap as simple as possible:

  • friction is the force resisting motion between two things (solids, fluid layers) in contact, sliding against each other and is the reason your hands heat up, if you rub them against each other
  • lubrication means adding something, usually a fluid lubricant like oil, between the things sliding against each other to reduce friction
  • wear is the damage caused to the surfaces of the things sliding against each other

It is actually quite simple, but the real challenge is in preventing the wear from occurring, knowing what to do to reduce the friction appropriately (not too much or too little), selecting the right material for your contact surfaces and choosing the correct lubricant, all with the aim of selecting a combination of all these things, which will provide the best possible performance of the chosen system.

Here is an example of how we can determine what type of wear is occurring by using an SEM (scanning electron microscope).

In order to do so, one must have a deeper understanding of why the friction and wear are occurring, which is where the interdisciplinary part comes in. Sometimes the solution to the problem can be as elegant as a small design change or a change in operational parameters, which requires Material engineering, but more often the friction and wear are managed by the addition of coatings and lubricant, which requires Chemistry and Materials sciences. Since it is always better to simulate things in the beginning, instead of physically testing them, and also better to detect and prevent a fault, than to fix it, there are also some Maintenance, Electrical engineering, Simulations and Computer sciences in there as well.

Usual applications of Tribology nowadays are still in the traditional industrial machinery and maintenance, but also in biomedical fields (joint replacements, biomimetics), nanotechnology, (alternative) energy production and increasingly in green tribology (environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions). See here for more tech-heavy details.

In a way, I could say Tribology is a field of optimization and details, which is often underestimated, but extremely important, and I am not just saying that because it is my field. 🙂 A report from 2017 estimated that investing in tribological solutions could save about 1.4 % of GDP globally, and reduce the global energy consumption by 8.7%. You may think those numbers are insignificant, but we are talking about billions of euros (20 billion pounds estimated for the UK alone) saved just by investing in “tiny” things like better lubricants, wear protections and optimization of existing machinery.

A 3D optical scan of a worn surface after testing, taken with an optical interferometer.

To illustrate the fact that Tribology really is everywhere, I will give you some very non-engineering examples: sports shoes, skiing and sledging, fjords (created by glacial abrasion and erosion), sex, hip joints and so on. And, if you are still not convinced it is important, here is another article by Heather, a PhD student from Leeds, who summarises it quite nicely too.

During my studies and research work so far, I have dealt mostly with polymer tribology (plastic materials), such as polymer gears and new materials for bearings and hip joint replacements, as this is my chosen niche, although my PhD deals with real contact area determination. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I am quite passionate about my work, as I not only find it incredibly interesting, but also truly believe research in Tribology contributes to a more efficient, and thus more sustainable and environmentally friendly world.

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