A lubricant (sometimes shortened to lube) is a substance that helps to reduce friction between surfaces in mutual contact, which ultimately reduces the heat generated when the surfaces move. It may also have the function of transmitting forces, transporting foreign particles, or heating or cooling the surfaces. The property of reducing friction is known as lubricity.
In addition to industrial applications, lubricants are used for many other purposes. Other uses include cooking (oils and fats in use in frying pans, in baking to prevent food sticking), bioapplications on humans (e.g., lubricants for artificial joints), ultrasound examination, medical examination, and sexual intercourse. It is mainly used to reduce friction and to contribute to a better and efficient functioning of a mechanism.
Lubricants have been in some use for thousands of years. Calcium soaps have been identified on the axles of chariots dated to 1400 BC. Building stones were slid on oil-impregnated lumber in the time of the pyramids. In the Roman era, lubricants were based on olive oil and rapeseed oil, as well as animal fats. The growth of lubrication accelerated in the Industrial Revolution with the accompanying use of metal-based machinery. Relying initially on natural oils, needs for such machinery shifted toward petroleum-based materials early in the 1900s. A breakthrough came with the development of vacuum distillation of petroleum, as described by the Vacuum Oil Company. This technology allowed the purification of very nonvolatile substances, which are common in many lubricants.
A good lubricant generally possesses the following characteristics:
Typically lubricants contain 90% base oil (most often petroleum fractions, called mineral oils) and less than 10% additives. Vegetable oils or synthetic liquids such as hydrogenated polyolefins, esters, silicones, fluorocarbons and many others are sometimes used as base oils. Additives deliver reduced friction and wear, increased viscosity, improved viscosity index, resistance to corrosion and oxidation, aging or contamination, etc.
Non-liquid lubricants include powders (dry graphite, PTFE, molybdenum disulphide, tungsten disulphide, etc.), PTFE tape used in plumbing, air cushion and others. Dry lubricants such as graphite, molybdenum disulphide and tungsten disulphide also offer lubrication at temperatures (up to 350 °C) higher than liquid and oil-based lubricants are able to operate. Limited interest has been shown in low friction properties of compacted oxide glaze layers formed at several hundred degrees Celsius in metallic sliding systems, however, practical use is still many years away due to their physically unstable nature.
A large number of additives are used to impart performance characteristics to the lubricants. Modern automotive lubricants contain as many as ten additives, comprising up to 20% of the lubricant, the main families of additives are:
In 1999, an estimated 37,300,000 tons of lubricants were consumed worldwide. Automotive applications dominate, including electric vehicles but other industrial, marine, and metal working applications are also big consumers of lubricants. Although air and other gas-based lubricants are known (e.g., in fluid bearings), liquid lubricants dominate the market, followed by solid lubricants.
Lubricants are generally composed of a majority of base oil plus a variety of additives to impart desirable characteristics. Although generally lubricants are based on one type of base oil, mixtures of the base oils also are used to meet performance requirements.
The lubricant industry commonly extends this group terminology to include:
Can also be classified into three categories depending on the prevailing compositions:
Petroleum-derived lubricant can also be produced using synthetic hydrocarbons (derived ultimately from petroleum), "synthetic oils".
PTFE: polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is typically used as a coating layer on, for example, cooking utensils to provide a non-stick surface. Its usable temperature range up to 350 °C and chemical inertness make it a useful additive in special greases, where it can function both as a thickener and a lubricant. Under extreme pressures, PTFE powder or solids is of little value as it is soft and flows away from the area of contact. Ceramic or metal or alloy lubricants must be used then.
Inorganic solids: Graphite, hexagonal boron nitride, molybdenum disulfide and tungsten disulfide are examples of solid lubricants. Some retain their lubricity to very high temperatures. The use of some such materials is sometimes restricted by their poor resistance to oxidation (e.g., molybdenum disulfide degrades above 350 °C in air, but 1100 °C in reducing environments.
Metal/alloy: Metal alloys, composites and pure metals can be used as grease additives or the sole constituents of sliding surfaces and bearings. Cadmium and gold are used for plating surfaces which gives them good corrosion resistance and sliding properties, Lead, tin, zinc alloys and various bronze alloys are used as sliding bearings, or their powder can be used to lubricate sliding surfaces alone.
Aqueous lubrication is of interest in a number of technological applications. Strongly hydrated brush polymers such as PEG can serve as lubricants at liquid solid interfaces. By continuous rapid exchange of bound water with other free water molecules, these polymer films keep the surfaces separated while maintaining a high fluidity at the brush–brush interface at high compressions, thus leading to a very low coefficient of friction.
Biolubricants are derived from vegetable oils and other renewable sources. They usually are triglyceride esters (fats obtained from plants and animals). For lubricant base oil use, the vegetable derived materials are preferred. Common ones include high oleic canola oil, castor oil, palm oil, sunflower seed oil and rapeseed oil from vegetable, and tall oil from tree sources. Many vegetable oils are often hydrolyzed to yield the acids which are subsequently combined selectively to form specialist synthetic esters. Other naturally derived lubricants include lanolin (wool grease, a natural water repellent).
In 2008, the biolubricant market was around 1% of UK lubricant sales in a total lubricant market of 840,000 tonnes/year.
As of 2020[update], researchers at Australia's CSIRO have been studying safflower oil as an engine lubricant, finding superior performance and lower emissions than petroleum-based lubricants in applications such as engine-driven lawn mowers, chainsaws and other agricultural equipment. Grain-growers trialling the product have welcomed the innovation, with one describing it as needing very little refining, biodegradable, a bioenergy and biofuel. The scientists have reengineered the plant using gene silencing, creating a variety that produces up to 93% of oil, the highest currently available from any plant. Researchers at Montana State University’s Advanced Fuel Centre in the US studying the oil’s performance in a large diesel engine, comparing it with conventional oil, have described the results as a "game-changer".
Anti-tack or anti-stick coatings are designed to reduce the adhesive condition (stickiness) of a given material. The rubber, hose, and wire and cable industries are the largest consumers of anti-tack products but virtually every industry uses some form of anti-sticking agent. Anti-sticking agents differ from lubricants in that they are designed to reduce the inherently adhesive qualities of a given compound while lubricants are designed to reduce friction between any two surfaces.
Lubricants are typically used to separate moving parts in a system. This separation has the benefit of reducing friction, wear and surface fatigue, together with reduced heat generation, operating noise and vibrations. Lubricants achieve this in several ways. The most common is by forming a physical barrier i.e., a thin layer of lubricant separates the moving parts. This is analogous to hydroplaning, the loss of friction observed when a car tire is separated from the road surface by moving through standing water. This is termed hydrodynamic lubrication. In cases of high surface pressures or temperatures, the fluid film is much thinner and some of the forces are transmitted between the surfaces through the lubricant.
Typically the lubricant-to-surface friction is much less than surface-to-surface friction in a system without any lubrication. Thus use of a lubricant reduces the overall system friction. Reduced friction has the benefit of reducing heat generation and reduced formation of wear particles as well as improved efficiency. Lubricants may contain polar additives known as friction modifiers that chemically bind to metal surfaces to reduce surface friction even when there is insufficient bulk lubricant present for hydrodynamic lubrication, e.g. protecting the valve train in a car engine at startup. The base oil itself might also be polar in nature and as a result inherently able to bind to metal surfaces, as with polyolester oils.
Both gas and liquid lubricants can transfer heat. However, liquid lubricants are much more effective on account of their high specific heat capacity. Typically the liquid lubricant is constantly circulated to and from a cooler part of the system, although lubricants may be used to warm as well as to cool when a regulated temperature is required. This circulating flow also determines the amount of heat that is carried away in any given unit of time. High flow systems can carry away a lot of heat and have the additional benefit of reducing the thermal stress on the lubricant. Thus lower cost liquid lubricants may be used. The primary drawback is that high flows typically require larger sumps and bigger cooling units. A secondary drawback is that a high flow system that relies on the flow rate to protect the lubricant from thermal stress is susceptible to catastrophic failure during sudden system shut downs. An automotive oil-cooled turbocharger is a typical example. Turbochargers get red hot during operation and the oil that is cooling them only survives as its residence time in the system is very short (i.e. high flow rate). If the system is shut down suddenly (pulling into a service area after a high-speed drive and stopping the engine) the oil that is in the turbo charger immediately oxidizes and will clog the oil ways with deposits. Over time these deposits can completely block the oil ways, reducing the cooling with the result that the turbo charger experiences total failure, typically with seized bearings. Non-flowing lubricants such as greases and pastes are not effective at heat transfer although they do contribute by reducing the generation of heat in the first place.
Lubricant circulation systems have the benefit of carrying away internally generated debris and external contaminants that get introduced into the system to a filter where they can be removed. Lubricants for machines that regularly generate debris or contaminants such as automotive engines typically contain detergent and dispersant additives to assist in debris and contaminant transport to the filter and removal. Over time the filter will get clogged and require cleaning or replacement, hence the recommendation to change a car's oil filter at the same time as changing the oil. In closed systems such as gear boxes the filter may be supplemented by a magnet to attract any iron fines that get created.
It is apparent that in a circulatory system the oil will only be as clean as the filter can make it, thus it is unfortunate that there are no industry standards by which consumers can readily assess the filtering ability of various automotive filters. Poor automotive filters significantly reduce the life of the machine (engine) as well as make the system inefficient.
Lubricants known as hydraulic fluid are used as the working fluid in hydrostatic power transmission. Hydraulic fluids comprise a large portion of all lubricants produced in the world. The automatic transmission's torque converter is another important application for power transmission with lubricants.
Lubricants prevent wear by reducing friction between two parts. Lubricants may also contain anti-wear or extreme pressure additives to boost their performance against wear and fatigue.
Many lubricants are formulated with additives that form chemical bonds with surfaces or that exclude moisture, to prevent corrosion and rust. It reduces corrosion between two metallic surfaces and avoids contact between these surfaces to avoid immersed corrosion.
Lubricants will occupy the clearance between moving parts through the capillary force, thus sealing the clearance. This effect can be used to seal pistons and shafts.
A further phenomenon that has undergone investigation in relation to high-temperature wear prevention and lubrication is that of a compacted oxide layer glaze formation. Such glazes are generated by sintering a compacted oxide layer. Such glazes are crystalline, in contrast to the amorphous glazes seen in pottery. The required high temperatures arise from metallic surfaces sliding against each other (or a metallic surface against a ceramic surface). Due to the elimination of metallic contact and adhesion by the generation of oxide, friction and wear is reduced. Effectively, such a surface is self-lubricating.
As the "glaze" is already an oxide, it can survive to very high temperatures in air or oxidising environments. However, it is disadvantaged by it being necessary for the base metal (or ceramic) having to undergo some wear first to generate sufficient oxide debris.
It is estimated that about 50% of all lubricants are released into the environment. Common disposal methods include recycling, burning, landfill and discharge into water, though typically disposal in landfill and discharge into water are strictly regulated in most countries, as even small amount of lubricant can contaminate a large amount of water. Most regulations permit a threshold level of lubricant that may be present in waste streams and companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually in treating their waste waters to get to acceptable levels.
Burning the lubricant as fuel, typically to generate electricity, is also governed by regulations mainly on account of the relatively high level of additives present. Burning generates both airborne pollutants and ash rich in toxic materials, mainly heavy metal compounds. Thus lubricant burning takes place in specialized facilities that have incorporated special scrubbers to remove airborne pollutants and have access to landfill sites with permits to handle the toxic ash.
Unfortunately, most lubricant that ends up directly in the environment is due to the general public discharging it onto the ground, into drains, and directly into landfills as trash. Other direct contamination sources include runoff from roadways, accidental spillages, natural or man-made disasters, and pipeline leakages.
Improvement in filtration technologies and processes has now made recycling a viable option (with the rising price of base stock and crude oil). Typically various filtration systems remove particulates, additives, and oxidation products and recover the base oil. The oil may get refined during the process. This base oil is then treated much the same as virgin base oil however there is considerable reluctance to use recycled oils as they are generally considered inferior. Basestock fractionally vacuum distilled from used lubricants has superior properties to all-natural oils, but cost-effectiveness depends on many factors. Used lubricant may also be used as refinery feedstock to become part of crude oil. Again, there is considerable reluctance to this use as the additives, soot, and wear metals will seriously poison/deactivate the critical catalysts in the process. Cost prohibits carrying out both filtration (soot, additives removal) and re-refining (distilling, isomerization, hydrocrack, etc.) however the primary hindrance to recycling still remains the collection of fluids as refineries need continuous supply in amounts measured in cisterns, rail tanks.
Occasionally, unused lubricant requires disposal. The best course of action in such situations is to return it to the manufacturer where it can be processed as a part of fresh batches.
Environment: Lubricants both fresh and used can cause considerable damage to the environment mainly due to their high potential of serious water pollution. Further, the additives typically contained in lubricant can be toxic to flora and fauna. In used fluids, the oxidation products can be toxic as well. Lubricant persistence in the environment largely depends upon the base fluid, however if very toxic additives are used they may negatively affect the persistence. Lanolin lubricants are non-toxic making them the environmental alternative which is safe for both users and the environment.