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Tribology and Surface Science

Every day we rely on mechanical systems in our lives, from engines for our cars to tractors for construction and compressors for manufacturing.

Our national defense is no exception, relying on properly functioning systems to determine mission success or failure. The ability for these mechanical systems to function properly often depends on how their materials and lubricants wear or degrade. Failure can occur in an instant and be catastrophic. This is why engineers at Argonne’s Tribology Laboratory research advanced friction, wear, lubrication and bearing systems for use in the most aggressive environments. 

Focusing on National Security

By better understanding the tribology of systems, how materials and lubricants wear or degrade over time, scientists are improving U.S. Military transportation and propulsion systems through research in three key areas: 

  • Highlyinstrumented lab-scale testing that yields extremely detailed data on performance, durability and failure limits of materials and lubricants
  • Advanced tools for measuring how structures, chemistries and evolving equipment designs impact performance 
  • Advanced materials and testing for lubricants and coatings to improve overall system performance

All three focus areas come together in research on scuffing. The condition, a major concern for U.S. military helicopters, results from changes in surface properties leading to high friction, wear and eventually failure of systems. Sand, dust and other matter can embed in lubricants, creating unseen hazardous wear conditions. Scientists are working on this challenge to reduce and hopefully eliminate scuffing.

Collaborating for Results

Tribology research comprises three areas of expertise found at Argonne Laboratory. Simulation and testing yields increased understanding of failure modes of existing materials and equipment. Advanced modeling uses that data to verify alternate solutions to different tribological occurrences. Materials science identifies and develops new coatings with specific characteristics to increase their reliability. This combination of specific skills and facilities is unique to Argonne and the resulting capabilities are unmatched elsewhere. 

Achieving Success

In addition to more resilient materials, Argonne scientists are exploring methods to minimize or even eliminate friction completely under certain conditions. Superlubricity uses graphene coupled with nanodiamonds in a technology developed at Argonne to reduce friction to near zero. When widely available, superlubricants will dramatically reduce billions in annual U.S. Military maintenance and repair costs caused by friction and wear and tear on equipment.