In 1964, a lubrication expert named Peter Jost gathered with his colleagues at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in Cardiff, Wales, to discuss a vexing paradox. Factory machinery everywhere was producing more and better goods than ever before. But it was also failing at an increasing rate. The immediate problem was friction: Lubricants were breaking down, bearings were wearing out, metal components were cracking. The larger problem was that plant managers did little to reduce that friction. A little grease, a little tinkering, nothing more. Why?
Jost and the other engineers decided the managers didn't know they needed help. Lubrication involved many disciplines—fluid dynamics, metallurgy, physics—and influenced every aspect of production, but most people overlooked it. So Jost set out to change the world's perspective.
He invented a new name for a new discipline, tribology, from the Greek tribos, or "rubbing." Tribologists would study "interacting surfaces in relative motion." Jost calculated that tribologists could reduce British manufacturing costs by 515 million pounds per year.
Soon tribologists were cutting costs around the world, and today they're involved in everything from making smoother hip socket replacements to predicting earthquakes by analyzing the stick-slip action of tectonic plates.
And they're still changing our perspective, too. Last March, tribologists at Argonne National Laboratory and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland found that automakers could reduce inefficiencies in vehicles by 61 percent within two decades—simply by incorporating current tribological advances in, say, lubricant additives or surface coatings.
Like Jost, they put an annual price tag on that savings: more than $700 billion worldwide. But this time, they made an even more important point: The cars would burn 102 billion fewer gallons of gas per year, producing 960 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide. Managing friction saves more than money; it saves energy. It could even save the planet.
Multiply the efficiencies tribology could bring to the auto sector by the efficiencies it could bring to aviation, or shipping, or even just washing machines. Every barrel of oil we don't have to pump, every cubic meter of gas we don't have to frack, is a gain for the environment. By a simple shift of perspective, then, tribologists offer the ultimate form of alternative energy: a world with less friction.
Luke Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the magazine's Ideas Editor.
I think the lubrication and greasing of palms has had the opposite effect of efficiency in Washington.
What efficiency? Congress is dead locked and do nothing.
i think there's something inherently wrong in looking at it as every barrel we don't have to pump. we'll pump the oil simply because there will be people who buy it, gas has become something more of a necessity than a commodity. but we won't pump less simply because we don't need it thanks to efficiency, we'll pump the same amount if not more and the only thing that will change is that cars will become economical for another decade or so.
to mars or bust!
@ghost We will pump less if demand for fuel lowers because were using it more efficiently. This happened when the market crashed in 2008. Fuel prices dropped to almost a dollar a gallon because they were producing way too much fuel. If they were to continue to sell fuel at that price because of more efficient engines than these companies would go out of business so they reduce production of fuel to match demand.
Tribology is a discipline that's been studies for a long time. Our old friend, Leonardo da Vinci, even discussed friction behavior in his Madrid codices. Unfortunately, the discipline has yet to give us 'laws' or universal formulas -- as physics or chemistry has -- to solve the energy dissipation problems that plague cars, human bodies or plate tectonics. The best we can hope for is that scientists and engineers continue to investigate friction, wear and lubrication processes and discover what goes on at the buried interface between moving parts. Aye, there's the true rub.
"...Unfortunately, the discipline has yet to give us 'laws' or universal formulas -- as physics or chemistry has -- to solve the energy dissipation problems that plague cars, human bodies or plate tectonics..."
8thdecade- That's entirely untrue. The science of tribology is mostly based on fluid mechanics and heat transfer principles, that are well established fields of physics. You need to take a look at the work done by Reynolds, Stribeck, Palmgren, etc.
Have you investigated a product called GO15 ? It is a lubricating additive that reduces friction by repairing damaged metal as it is heated and reduces friction.
"8thdecade- That's entirely untrue. The science of tribology is mostly based on fluid mechanics and heat transfer principles, that are well established fields of physics. You need to take a look at the work done by Reynolds, Stribeck, Palmgren, etc."
You've mentioned one of the few specialize areas of tribology -- fluid mechanics and heat transfer -- whose principles are understood. But real world tribology involves mixed and boundary lubrication of both solids and liquids, whose frictional and rheological properties are not known at the nanometer scale. Neither the properties nor the mechanisms at the nanoscale are understood. Because of this, we have no universal analytical/computational tools for modeling either friction or wear during solid-solid sliding contacts. Think 'third body formation,' the evolution of most surfaces in sliding contact, which evolves pass by pass depending on local atmosphere,temperature, contact stress, microstructure, etc. That's too difficult for anyone to model. The best we can do today is to rely on 'wear maps' of a few systems that have been studied experimentally. Tribology provides few precise predicting tools for real world sliding contacts.