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The University of Southampton

Tribology: saving costs and improving safety across industries

The UK economy loses £24billion every year because of problems with friction, wear and lubrication. That figure represents up to 1.6 percent of the country’s GDP. This field of engineering, known as Tribology, looks at ways of reducing this damage in transport, manufacturing, energy and life sciences. The University of Southampton is the home of the national Centre of Advanced Tribology (nCATS)

Research challenge

All machinery, instrumentation and equipment with moving parts are in danger of being damaged by problems with friction, lubrication and wear. Tribological failure can also be dangerous as shown when a wind turbine gearbox caught fire in Scotland in 2011, or even deadly: Alaska Airlines flight 261 crashed in 2000 with 88 fatalities due to excessive wear of a jackscrew thread in the flight control system.


Tribology researchers at Southampton, led by Professor Robert Wood, were awarded £10million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), University of Southampton and industry in 2008 to establish a national centre for research into this aspect of engineering. nCATS now hosts 39 multidisciplinary researchers. In addition to tribological engineering their areas of expertise also include: corrosion, sensing, biofilms, antifouling, skin conditions, lubricants and industrial coatings.

Our solution

Fundamental research into many serious tribological issues is carried out at nCATS in collaboration with industry. Professor Robert Wood has carried out a series of projects with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) / Sellafield. They have focused on the transfer of radioactive slurry from holding ponds to a processing plant, ensuring minimal erosion and corrosion levels on pipes, pumps, valves etc.

In another example, several collaborators including the US Office of Naval Research, Chevron Oronite and GE Aviation have funded research into electrostatic sensing of wear. It resulted in the development of advanced sensors that can detect signs of wear on surfaces and also monitor the oil condition in running machinery.

Our impact

Findings of nCATS fundamental research into ways to combat damaging friction and wear are being used by the companies and organisations which collaborated with the work. BNFL uses the results of its projects with Southampton researchers in its Design Guide for slurry handling pipework and components. Sellafield, the company responsible for nuclear decommissioning and waste management, has placed several further projects with nCATS to assess on the vulnerability of stainless steel valves to erosion.

nCATS has developed a new electrostatic sensor to detect potentially damaging wear and oil quality. They are energy efficient and work in real time. Clients, including GE Aviation, have now integrated this technology into their commercial sensor systems

nCATS is also committed to spreading the word to industry about its expertise in tribology. It has held major events such as a Marine Energy Systems Day, with 60 delegates and a Functional Coatings for Industry Day for 100 business leaders. Professor Wood is Chair of the UK Tribology Network.

Tribology is the science of friction, lubrication and wear. University of Southampton is the home of the national Centre of Advanced Tribology (nCATS)
Friction, lubrication and wear
Preventing wear and tear - Engineering and the Environment New Boundaries

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