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Preventing wear and tear

Getting under the surface of green tribology

Published: 18 October 2017

From making the difference between winning or losing in sport and enabling musicians to hit the perfect note on a violin, to ensuring vehicle brakes are fully functioning and safe, Tribology can be found in almost all aspects of everyday life.

Now research at the University of Southampton is using it to address key challenges facing society today. By combining engineering and science in the field of green tribology, we are helping to tackle issues including reducing waste and extending the lifespan of equipment.

Tribology ­­– the essential science of all interacting surfaces in relative motion – is immensely important to the successful operation of engineered machines and natural mechanisms of all scales, and demands multifunctional surfaces, explains Professor Ling Wang, Deputy Head of the national Centre for Advanced Tribology at Southampton (nCATS).

“In any process where two materials rub against each other, tribology plays a part,” says Ling. “In order to improve the performance of a material, we can modify its surface by adding a coating or changing the surface texture so that wear is reduced.”

Our work is core to future transport and energy-efficient machines, the control of emissions and low-maintenance renewable energy systems

Professor Ling Wang - Deputy Head of nCATS

nCATS was established in 2008 following an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Science and Innovation Award – a £10m grant from the EPRSC, industry and the University representing the largest ever investment in UK tribology research.

“nCATS is an interdisciplinary centre that aims to solve next-generation tribological design issues and enable surface interactions to occur with minimal energy loss and impact on the environment,” says Ling. “We link world-class research groups in key disciplines at the University."

Green or environmentally-friendly tribology emphasises the green or clean technology aspects of wear, friction and lubrication of interacting surfaces. One example of tribology’s important relationship with sustainable energy can be seen in the development, maintenance and improvement of wind turbine technology.

Wind turbines are a key part of generating long-term sustainable energy – but ensuring the turbines themselves have longevity is a major challenge for the green industry.

Improving performance and reliability

Ling and her team have been looking at wind turbine gearbox bearing failures with the aim of understanding the mechanism behind the failures and providing solutions to improve cost efficiency and reliability of wind power as a sustainable energy source.

“In collaboration with Vestas Wind Systems, Afton Chemical and Schaeffler Technologies, we have been investigating a particular failure mode called white etching cracking that occurs in bearings in the gearboxes,” says Ling.

White etching cracking is one of the primary causes of failure in a wind turbine bearing, and as Ling explains, can have a considerable effect on the industry, as well as the efficiency of turbines as a green energy source.

“Currently a bearing failure due to white etching cracking in a large wind turbine could cost over £300,000. This has a high impact on the wind and renewable energy section. Thus turbine manufacturers, operators, bearing and gearbox producers as well as lubricant manufacturers are all concerned about this issue.”

The thing that sets our research centre apart from others is that every project is applied science that solves problems for industry. Tribology touches every area of science; it is closely linked to applications and solving real-world problems.

Professor Ling Wang - Deputy Head of nCATS

Oil efficiency

As well as the mechanics of wind turbines, tribology research also has an impact on the use of oil in machinery and transport.

In collaboration with Shell Global Solutions and colleagues in Electronics and Computer Science at the University, Ling is investigating oil quality and degradation. Oil is used as a lubricant in many types of machines and engines, but a lot of good oil is wasted when oil is changed prematurely, which has an impact on cost and the environment.

Ling explains: “We normally take a car to the garage and have its oil changed once a year or after a certain amount of mileage to prolong the life of the engine, but we don’t really know whether it needs to be changed this frequently.

“We have developed a cheap oil quality sensor, which can be fitted to an engine that monitors oil degradation.”

The sensor can be used to help users, lubricant manufacturers and operators to decide the exact time oil needs to be changed, saving them money.

“This will also have an impact on the environment, as it will reduce the amount of oil needed to maintain an engine, but also reduce the amount of waste oil being disposed of,” says Ling.

For more information on tribology research at Southampton, visit www.southampton.ac.uk/ncats

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