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The University of Southampton

Making industry more efficient by addressing problems with friction, wear and lubrication

Published: 8 December 2017

UK industry is wasting £24 billion a year because it doesn’t tackle major issues in friction, wear and lubrication.

Concern was first raised in 1966 in a review conducted by the UK Government’s Department of Education and Science and headed by the late Professor Peter Jost. Since then, researchers at the University of Southampton have worked extensively in this area of engineering, also known as Tribology, and many of its graduates are now respected specialist tribologists.

The nC2 engineering consultancy has now been set up at the University, through its national Centre for Advanced Tribology, Southampton (nCATS) to address these problems, common in fields as diverse as transport, manufacturing, energy and life sciences, which represent a loss of 1.6 per cent of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The nC2 team of expert engineers is working with clients with a wide range of challenges both on a consultancy basis and through short term research projects.


Why tribology matters in the 21st century

Tribology is not new. The term is based on the Greek word for rubbing and archaeologists have found images of ancient Egyptians using oil to help them to move large statues. Any machines or materials with moving parts are affected by friction causing wear that needs to be controlled with effective lubrication.

In extreme cases, tribological failure can be serious. Alaska Airlines flight 261 crashed in 2000 with 88 fatalities because of excessive wear of a jackscrew thread in the flight control system. Pioneers of wind energy must consider how friction and wear impact their turbines, following a fire in a turbine gearbox in Scotland in 2011.

Tribology has been an important subject within Engineering at the University of Southampton for the last 30 years. Lecturers teach on undergraduate and Masters degrees and there are PhD and postdoctoral opportunities for talented early career researchers from around the world, while researchers are involved with projects across the spectrum. They range from improving oil and gas production in extreme climates around the world to the development of more efficient skin care products.


nC2 consultants find the answers

Dr Jelili Bello is a senior consulting engineer at nC2 specialising in the control of erosive and abrasive wear. Damage here is caused by hard particles gradually damaging surfaces. He started out by examining how to reduce wear and friction using corrosion barrier coatings in oil and gas pipelines. “I began my career working on a research project to develop protective barrier coatings in oil and gas wells and my PhD thesis was sponsored by BP,” he says. “We were looking at how to prevent corrosion in pipes. Instead of using expensive stainless steel materials to make them, we proposed a cost saving carbon steel alternative that had its internal surface lined with a polymer coating to protect it from environmental problems such as corrosion and wear.”

Dr Nicola Symonds, a failure and forensic analysis expert, is the Operations Director, while the unit head, Dr Clint Styles, oversees the overall business affairs of the unit. Senior Consultant (Corrosion Control) is Dr Spencer Court and Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Ilaria Corni (Applied Research), completes the unit’s highly skilled and experienced staff.

“Much of our work involves identifying the root cause of component and/or system failure in machines or devices and designing appropriate robust testing and analytical tools to address the problem in order to provide informed advice on the best solutions. This ultimately helps to eliminate or minimise machinery breakdowns and production downtime, which can quickly result in losses of millions of pounds to our clients,” explains Dr Bello. “We can diagnose component failure and identify new materials that are more resistant to tribological issues, in particular, abrasive and erosive wear, and work at a high level with leading companies and organisations to identify tribological problems and suggest cost effective solutions.”


Specialist equipment and multidisciplinary expertise

nC2 has access to the University of Southampton’s extensive range of state-of-the-art test and analytical facilities and laboratories, including tribometers. Among these are two specialist test rigs, designed and developed at the University of Southampton, that simulates the effect of solid particle erosion on components and surfaces, either through air-sand or water-sand (slurry) mode.

Many projects need input from engineers and scientists with different specialisms. nC2 can tap into expertise from experienced researchers based across the University of Southampton, including the fields of engineering, physics, medicine, biological sciences, chemistry, computer sciences and mathematics to find the answers to the more complex questions posed by clients.


Ten years of specialist research

In 2008, Tribology researchers at the University of Southampton were awarded £10million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to set up the national Centre for Advanced Tribology at Southampton (nCATS) to carry out cutting edge research into friction, wear and lubrication. Since then researchers have undertaken countless projects, working with clients including British Nuclear Fuels (erosion and corrosion) and GE Aviation (electrostatic sensing of wear) and their achievements were recognised in the latest UK Government assessment of research quality (REF 2014).

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