The History of Tribology Part 5: The Modern World, 2000-2023

In the last instalment of the History of Tribology series, we’ve finally reached the modern era. As tribology started effecting more areas of our daily lives, the period from 1915-2000 saw advancements in cars, the dawn of the jet and space ages, the digital revolution, and biomedical innovations.

However, in the first two decades of the 21st Century, tribology has become more intertwined with our lives than ever before. Tribology in the present has become linked more closely with socioeconomic and scientific endeavours, with the breadth of tribology’s influence ranging from aiding green energy and sustainability, to robotics and nanotech!

As the world starts to pivot towards greener options of travel, a particular topic of interest for tribologists and engineers right now is electric vehicles. The same tribology issues that traditional, internal combustion engine vehicles faced are now being applied to hybrids and fully electric vehicles (EVs).

In hybrid electric vehicles, managing friction and wear is crucial for keeping them running smoothly, limiting pollution, and making them last longer. But for fully electric vehicles (as they don’t have exhaust emissions and fuel-based tribology issues to worry about), the remaining challenges for efficiency and durability will mostly fall upon the still-moving components, putting their tribology in the spotlight.

Reducing friction in parts like wheel bearings and gears helps electric cars go further on a single charge. Special lubricants are needed for electric cars to work with new materials and electrical currents, and to manage issues related to noise and vibrations. Despite having simpler mechanics, reducing friction remains crucial for electric vehicles to increase their driving range.

In 2022, wind energy made impressive strides, growing 14% as a sector worldwide and becoming a major player in green energy with significant plans for 2023, including a 70% growth in onshore wind capacity. This surge is eco-friendly, equivalently erasing the emissions of 70,000 UK petrol cars per offshore turbine yearly! However, the sector faces challenges, notably with wind turbine gearboxes that can be complex and costly to repair.

Four main tribological problems are faced by wind turbines:

  • High Loads: Wind turbines endure significant stresses from varying wind speeds, shifts in direction, and turbulence, all leading to strains on gearbox parts.
  • Degradation: The ongoing movement and rotation of the gears contribute to their deterioration alongside components like bearings and seals.
  • Insufficient lubrication: If there isn’t enough or the correct lubrication in the gearbox, it can trigger the overheating and wearing down of components.
  • Insufficient maintenance: Neglecting routine maintenance can escalate minor concerns into major problems, ultimately culminating in gearbox failure.

Tribology significantly impacts wind turbines by improving their efficiency, durability, and cost-effectiveness. It supports smooth operation through optimal lubrication and friction management, extends component lifespan by preventing wear and enhancing design, and helps in reducing maintenance needs and associated costs by enabling predictive maintenance and overall, supporting the economical production of wind energy.

Robotics is an ever-growing field of study for tribologists, as robots and autonomous machines are becoming more integrated with our daily lives. Industrial automation robots, such as those found on car manufacturing production lines, rely on tribology to enhance their motion, minimising unexpected maintenance and down time for repairs, as well as boosting productivity and product quality, and prolonging the lifespan of components.

Robots are also being used in medical and scientific research, even being used in surgeries in the form of robots like the da Vinci Surgical System (shown in the picture)! Tribology plays a crucial role in optimising the functionality of these autonomous robots, and allows them to perform tasks previously done by humans – allowing us to gain from the precise and speedy operations made possible by robotic systems.

Utilising tribology allows for precise calculations concerning autonomous robot processes, involving the meticulous movements of each component. It aids in forecasting how components will interact during motion, and automatically adjusts to maintain movement accuracy and operational speed!

Finally, tribology is reaching down to the smallest it’s ever been with nanotribology. Nanotribology has caught the eye of many researchers, especially when it comes to making really small parts in things like computers and electronic devices. It works on an incredibly small scale – a nanometre is one billionth of a metre! This means dealing with parts and details much smaller than what’s typical in usual manufacturing.

This specialised area of study explores the ins and outs of adhesion, wear, friction, and lubrication at an incredibly minuscule, often atomic, level. This means it demands inventive thinking and novel approaches to deal with the distinctive characteristics and behaviours at this scale.

Even though we don’t have a fully developed understanding of all the tiny mechanical details in nanotechnology yet, researchers and scientists all over the world are trying hard to learn more about it. Nanomaterials, which are super tiny materials, have their own special properties that affect their strength, scratchiness, and how they wear down. These properties can change a lot, especially when they’re around lubricants. So, engineers have to think about all these sometimes tricky factors when they work with them. All these points are really important when it comes to creating a wide range of practical things, spanning from precision systems and surface engineering to tribological systems, microsystems, actuators, and beyond!

Tribology has gone through many stages of evolution, and has helped make so many things possible – from the creation of fire and industrial revolutions, through to nanotechnology and space travel. Thanks for joining us on this journey through the history of tribology, if you’d like to read any of the other parts, follow the links below!

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