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Basics of Lubrication

Basics of Lubrication

Introduction to Lubrication
Fluids and Viscosity
Lubrication Regimes
Stribeck Curve
Hydrodynamic Lubrication
Hydrodynamic Lift
Hydrodynamic Bearings
Elastohydrodynamic Lubrication
Rolling Element Bearings
Boundary Lubrication
Mixed Lubrication
Special Thanks

Introduction to Lubrication

From practical experience, we know that adding a lubricant to a solid-solid contact will
significantly reduce friction. The reduced friction leads to less wear, heat generation and
energy loss all of which reduce operation costs and downtime. How lubricants provide
these benefits will be explored in this course.

The primary function of a lubricant is to provide protection for moving parts thereby
reducing friction and wear of the machine. Cooling and debris removal are the other
important benefits provided by a fluid lubricant.

Automobile Engine Piston

Lubrication is used in almost every mechanical device, such as the automobile engine,
including the pistons (above) and gears (below).
Fluids and Viscosity

Simply put, a fluid is a material that is either a liquid or gas, and fluids include air, water and
oil. Most lubrication is the result of a fluid film that is in between two solid surfaces that
move relative to each other. The fluid film in the lubricated area can have a thickness ranging
from a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) to hundreds of microns (millionths of a meter)
thick. As a point of reference, a human hair will have a diameter between 50 and 150

The most important property of a lubricant is the viscosity. Loosely defined, the viscosity is
the fluids ability to resist motion. A high viscosity means that a fluid is thicker and does not
flow as easily. For example, molasses has a much higher viscosity than water, which has a
much higher viscosity than air. The viscosity of oil is usually between that of water and
molasses. A higher viscosity fluid will typically make a thicker film between the moving
surfaces and support greater loads.

Of course, viscosity is not a constant property. Like most fluid properties, it depends on the
temperature and pressure, especially temperature. The oil in your cars engine has a high
viscosity on a cold morning before the engine is started and a low viscosity after the engine
heats up.

High viscosity does not guarantee a good lubricant, though. How often have you seen
molasses used as a lubricant? Chemistry of the fluid and conditions at the interface also
determine the proper lubricant. These effects will be covered in a later course. For this
course, we will consider only oils.

Lubrication Regimes

The thickness of the fluid film determines the lubrication regime, or the type of lubrication.
The basic regimes of fluid film lubrication are:

1. Hydrodynamic lubrication two surfaces are separated by a fluid film,

2. Elastohydrodynamic lubrication two surfaces are separated by a very thin fluid film,
3. Mixed lubrication two surfaces are partly separated, partly in contact, and,
4. Boundary lubrication two surfaces mostly are in contact with each other even
though a fluid is present.

In addition to fluid film lubrication, there is solid film lubrication, in which a thin solid film
separates two surfaces.
Lubrication Regimes

The fluid viscosity, the load that is carried by the two surfaces and the speed that the two
surfaces move relative to each other combine to determine the thickness of the fluid film.
This, in turn determines the lubrication regime. How these factors all affect the friction losses
and how they correspond to the different regimes is shown on the Stribeck curve. Engineers
to evaluate lubricants, to design bearings and to understand lubrication regimes, use the
Stribeck Curve.

Stribeck Curve

Sribeck Curve

The Stribeck Curve is a plot of the friction as it relates to viscosity, speed and load. On the
vertical axis is the friction coefficient. The horizontal axis shows a parameter that combines
the other variables: mN/P. In this formula, m is the fluid viscosity, N is the relative speed of
the surfaces, and P is the load on the interface per unit bearing width. Basically, as you move
to the right on the horizontal axis, the effects of increased speed, increased viscosity or
reduced load are seen. The zero point on the horizontal axis corresponds to static friction.

The combination of low speed, low viscosity and high load will produce boundary
lubrication. Boundary lubrication is characterized by little fluid in the interface and large
surface contact. We can see on the Stribeck curve that this results in very high friction.

As the speed and viscosity increase, or the load decreases, the surfaces will begin to separate,
and a fluid film begins to form. The film is still very thin, but acts to support more and more
of the load. Mixed lubrication is the result, and is easily seen on the Stribeck curve as a sharp
drop in friction coefficient. The drop in friction is a result of decreasing surface contact and
more fluid lubrication. The surfaces will continue to separate as the speed or viscosity
increase until there is a full fluid film and no surface contact. The friction coefficient will
reach its minimum and there is a transition to hydrodynamic lubrication. At this point, the
load on the interface is entirely supported by the fluid film. There is low friction and no wear
in hydrodynamic lubrication since there is a full fluid film and no solid-solid contact.

You might notice that the Stribeck curve shows the friction increasing in the hydrodynamic
region. This is due to fluid drag (friction produced by the fluid) - higher speed may result in
thicker fluid film, but it also increases the fluid drag on the moving surfaces. For example,
think about how much harder it is to run in a pool of water than it is to walk. Likewise, a
higher viscosity will increase the fluid film thickness, but it will also increase the drag.
Again, think about the difference between walking in air and walking in a pool of water.

Machinery will see boundary lubrication at start-up and shutdown (low speeds and thin film),
before transition to hydrodynamic lubrication at normal operating conditions (high speeds
and thick film). Inspection of the Stribeck curve will show us that a machine will see the
most friction and wear during start-up and shutdown.
Note: The Stribeck curve above is plotted in log-log format, so each tick represents a 10X
increase over the previous interval.

Hydrodynamic Lubrication

We saw in the discussion of the Stribeck curve that the presence of a full fluid film and no
surface contact indicates hydrodynamic lubrication. Hydrodynamic lubrication gets its name
because the fluid film is produced by relative motion of the solid surfaces and the fluid
pressure increase that results.

Hydrodynmic Lubrication Fluid Film

To understand hydrodynamic lubrication, we first should look at the figure above. We know
that a surface will have tiny asperities or peaks that will contact if two plates are placed
together. If one of the plates were to slide over the other, then friction would increase, the
asperities would break and the surfaces would wear. In hydrodynamic lubrication, a fluid
film separates the surfaces, prevents wear and reduces friction.

The hydrodynamic film is formed when the geometry, surface motion and fluid viscosity
combine to increase the fluid pressure enough to support the load. The increased pressure
forces the surfaces apart and prevents surface contact. Therefore, in hydrodynamic
lubrication, one surface floats over the other surface. The increase in fluid pressure that
forces the surfaces apart is hydrodynamic lift.

Hydrodynamic Lift
Consider two parallel plates with relative motion: if one surface is angled where the entrance
area is slightly larger than the exit area, then a wedge shaped gap is created. This is a
converging gap, and is the geometry necessary to produce hydrodynamic lift. Be careful
though - the difference between the inlet and outlet is extremely small (a few microns at
most), so the surfaces will look parallel to the naked eye. Any figures in this course or any
other source will be greatly exaggerated to illustrate the concept. Surfaces that are this
closely matched create a conformal contact.

Hydrodynamic Lift

Whenever a surface moves over a fluid, or a fluid flows over a surface, then the fluid
immediately next to the surface will move at the same speed as the surface. So, if two
surfaces move relative to each other and a fluid is present, then it will be dragged into the
interface. A fluid that enters a converging gap in this manner will see a pressure increase as
the gap converges, which creates hydrodynamic lift, and forces the surfaces apart like a

Hydrostatic lift is present when a higher-pressure fluid is forced between two surfaces. In this
case, the surface separation is caused by the static fluid pressure, and can occur without
surface motion.

The mathematical equation that describes the fluid pressure as it relates to surface motion,
film thickness and viscosity, the Reynolds equation, was developed by Osborne Reynolds
over 115 years ago. In its full form, the Reynolds equation is very complicated and difficult
to solve; however, the equation can be simplified to solve many problems in lubrication. The
Reynolds equation itself is beyond the scope of this course.

Hydrodynamic Bearings

A bearing is a machine component that supports or bears a load on a moving interface. You
may be familiar with ball bearings, thrust bearings or journal bearings, all of which are
common examples of fluid film bearings. Fluid film bearings are divided between
hydrodynamic, hydrostatic and elastohydrodynamic bearings. Hydrodynamic bearings get
load support by hydrodynamic lift. The most recognizable hydrodynamic bearings are slider
bearings and journal bearings.

A simple description of a slider bearing is that of a block moving over a stationary surface on
a thin fluid film. In a slider bearing, the moving surface will slide over the stationary
surface hence the name. This configuration is used to provide load support for a number of

Journal Bearing

Now imagine that the converging gap is rolled up - the result would be a journal bearing
(above). A journal bearing consists of a shaft (the journal) and a ring (the bearing). A journal
bearing is used to support the load on a rotating shaft. The load causes the journal and
bearing to be slightly offset so that a converging gap is created. As lubricating oil is fed into
the bearing and is dragged by the shaft into the converging gap, the fluid pressure increases
and a hydrodynamic lift is created. After the fluid flows through the narrowest part of the
gap, the fluid pressure decreases, and vapor pockets may form in the film (an adverse
condition known as cavitation). The fluid added in the inlet replaces the oil that leaks out the
ends of the journal bearing.

Elastohydrodynamic Lubrication

A thick fluid film, low friction and no wear are the defining characteristics of
hydrodynamic lubrication, which generally occurs at conformal contacts. A lubricated
nonconformal contact will experience elastohydrodynamic lubrication (EHD).

Nonconformal Contact

The classical description of a nonconformal contact is the ball-on-flat, as seen above. The
ball-on-flat is known as a Hertzian contact, which is a point contact with extremely high
pressure. As an example, a 19mm (3/4) diameter steel ball on a flat steel surface has a
maximum contact pressure of 950 MPa (138,000 psi) for a 30 N (6.7 lb.) load. That is over
9,300 times greater than atmospheric pressure, which is a mere 14.7 psi! We can see that the
nonconformal contact can produce pressures that are large enough to temporarily deform the
solid steel surface.

The enormous pressure produced in a nonconformal contact causes some interesting behavior
in oil. While the pressure is high enough to deform the solids, it will also affect the fluid
viscosity. Remember from the earlier discussion that viscosity depends on temperature and
pressure. Under moderate conditions, the effect of pressure is hardly noticeable, but the EHD
pressures are high enough to have a significant effect on the fluid viscosity. In fact, the oil in
an EHD contact can become semi solid, similar to cheese. This allows a very thin oil film to
form and supports the load. The science that studies the properties of fluids at these
extremely high pressures is known as rheology.

Rolling Element Bearings

Rolling element bearings include many types of ball bearings and roller bearings, and
provide load support through elastohydrodynamic lubrication.

Roller Element Bearing

As the name suggests, roller element bearings have rolling elements that carry the load. The
elements can take many shapes like balls or cylinders, or shapes in between, but will always
have nonconformal contacts and elastohydrodynamic lubrication. The nonconformal contact
is usually not a ball-on-flat since the rolling element may ride on a curved surface (the race).
But, the curvature of the race is considerably less than the ball so that the contact is still

The rolling elements and race of a rolling element bearing are made from hardened steel that
is able to withstand the extreme pressures of the nonconformal contact. The bearing materials
and increase in fluid viscosity allow rolling element bearings to smoothly and reliably
support loads in a wide range of applications where a rotating shaft is present, including
automobiles, pumps, compressors and turbines.

The next page features a visual illustration of the concepts in hydrodynamic lubrication
presented above. The video shows a narrated demonstration of the actual contact area of a
ball on disk under conditions of hydrodynamic lubrication at various speeds and loads. You
will need QuickTime (or similar viewing software) to view this clip. Click on the QuickTime
link below to download this free software if you need it. This video contains about 6
megabytes. It may take as much as 30 minutes to download on phone connections as slow as
24,000 bps, or about 2 minutes on a DSL line. For best results, download completely before
starting. It will take about 7 minutes to play.

Boundary of Lubrication

Boundary lubrication occurs when the lubricating film is about same thickness as the surface
roughness such that the high points (asperities) on the solid surfaces contact. This is
generally an undesirable operating regime for a hydrostatic or hydrodynamic bearing, since it
leads to increased friction, energy loss, wear and material damage. But, most machines will
see boundary lubrication during their operating lives, especially during start-up, shutdown
and low speed operation. Special lubricants and additives have been developed to decrease
the negative effects of boundary lubrication.

Boundary Lubrication

Boundary lubricants generally have long, straight, polar molecules, which will readily attach
themselves to the metal surfaces. The lubricant molecules will form a thick protective layer
that resembles a molecular shag carpet (below).

The thin layers keep the metal surfaces from contacting, but the boundary lubricant layers
will contact each other causing wear. The sacrificial wear of the lubricant layer will reduce
metal wear and prolong the life of the machine.

Mixed Lubrication

Mixed lubrication occurs between boundary and hydrodynamic lubrication, as the name
would suggest. The fluid film thickness is slightly greater than the surface roughness, so that
there is very little asperity (high point) contact, but the surfaces are still close enough
together to affect each other. In a mixed lubrication system, the surface asperities themselves
can form miniature nonconformal contacts. As we saw previously, nonconformal contacts
lead to EHD. But since we are dealing with asperities, not ball bearings, the effect is
localized. This phenomenon is termed micro-elastohydrodynamic lubrication.

Greases consists of a solid soap such as calcium or lithium soap or in some cases a fine clay
that forms a matrix in which a liquid lubricant is dispersed. The matrix does not aid
lubrication but is a reservoir that releases lubricant to the contact area. The liquid lubricant
can contain boundary and EP additives, as well as solid lubricants such as graphite and
molybdenum disulfide.

Grease Gelling Agents - Soap and soap complex

Lithium -- Most common, easy to manufacture, easy to store, good pumpability,

resists dust and coal, flowability permits dirt to flow out
Calcium -- Requires less regreasing, good water resistance, calcium soap aids
Aluminum -- Highest resistance to water, chemicals, acids, (edible)
Barium -- High water resistance, somewhat toxic
Sodium -- Fibrous, water-soluble

Thickeners, while not contributing much toward lubrication, impart unique properties to the
grease affecting its applicability in certain applications or environments. Of these the lithium
and so-called lithium complex thickened greases are the most common.

Nonsoap Greases
Clays and Silica -- Insoluble powders, silica or platelets of clay. Chemically modified
structures and surfaces are made usable as gelling agents for grease. These greases
further increase the maximum usable temperature.
Polyurea -- Polyurea greases are called high performance greases due to their broad
range of performance attributes.

Another class of thickeners are the nonsoap thickeners. These are usually used in
applications where the temperatures are high causing the other types of thickeners to soften
excessively. This can allow the grease not to stay in place or can even cause it to lose its
thickness permanently.