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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N°39 - November 2003   
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INDUSTRIAL TECHNOLOGIES
Title  Tribology in the 'nano' age

Little known to the uninitiated, the scientific and technological discipline which studies the resistance of materials to the friction and wear inherent in mechanical systems is at the forefront of the industrial penetration of nanotechnologies. 

TRIBO project: research on improving tribological performances in the aerospace industry where they are particularly important for safety and energy savings.
TRIBO project: research on improving tribological performances in the aerospace industry where they are particularly important for safety and energy savings.
In the physical world around us, nothing happens without friction. It is both a constraint and a necessary condition for the transfer of power in mechanical systems. The contact between two materials, and the friction that one exercises on the other, causes an inevitable process of wear which is sometimes slow – for instance, the footsteps of walkers eroding city pavements – and sometimes instantaneous – such as a space shuttle without its ceramic shield breaking up as it enters the dense layers of the earth's atmosphere. At the same time, a car cannot move without the series of surface interactions – and thus friction – between the metal components which convert the rectilinear movements of the pistons into a rotary movement. It is also unable to stop without the brake pads pressing against the wheel discs.

The study of how to strengthen the resistance of materials to friction and the resulting wear, as well as optimising the power transmitted by mechanical systems and the complex lubrication they require, has become a specialised science and technology discipline which has seen major growth in recent decades. Bearing the rather colourful name of ‘tribology’ (from the Greek tribos, meaning scraping), this field of research and application requires physicists, chemists, hydrodynamic specialists and engineers to work closely together as part of an interdisciplinary approach.

Technological sophistication
Tribology has developed out of the growing complexity and sophistication of the systems engineering used in many sectors – transport, space, robotics, medical technologies – and the associated safety and reliability requirements. Progress in tribology is also linked to the emergence of increasingly advanced technological tools used in the analysis and manipulation of matter. These are found especially in the field of thin coating application and lubricant formulation, involving, for example, electronic microscopy, tunnel effect optics, radiology, spectography, high-energy plasmas, as well as laser, ionic or neutron beams.

But the discipline today is assuming a radically new dimension as it enters the age of nanotechnology. 'Nanopowder depositing and nanostructured coating technologies are now a key field for the future of intelligent and multifunctional materials,' stresses José-Lorenzo Vallés, head of the European Commission's Materials Research unit.

Cluster research
In light of its growing industrial importance, in 2002 the Nanotrib 'cluster' (see box) was set up, bringing together a number of research projects in this field. 'Policy to strengthen synergy between these projects permits the sharing of experience and good practices, avoids duplication, and encourages the development of norms and the dissemination of results amongst a wider base of potential users,' explains Vallés.

Around 60 research teams, 16 of them employed by small- and medium-sized enterprises, are working on the six EU-funded Nanotrib projects. Financing for this cluster has reached the ‘critical mass’ of €16 million, of which the Union provides half.

'The specific goals of each of the projects have complementary multidisciplinary bases,' stresses Karen Vercammen, coordinator of the Nanotrib LubriCoat project, and researcher at the Materials Technologies Department at Belgium’s VITO  (Vlaamse Institut voor Technologische Onderzoek). 'In addition to the concrete and, where applicable, directly marketable results, each research team – in sectors such as aerospace, machine tools, metal forming, automobile engines or wind turbines – wants the methodologies developed to also have a medium- or long-term impact. In particular, Nanotrib aims to contribute to sustainable development. Improved performance must lead to longer life cycles for mechanical systems and thus reduced consumption of materials. At the environmental level, one should expect reduced energy consumption and the replacement of toxic lubricants by biodegradable and renewable organic substitutes.'

Benefits of the new microlubrication process, developed by the MICLUB project, using PVD (physical vapour deposition) to deposit a coating on the surface of tools used in metal forming.
Benefits of the new microlubrication process, developed by the MICLUB project, using PVD (physical vapour deposition) to deposit a coating on the surface of tools used in metal forming.

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  A priority for Europe's future

With a research budget of €1 300 million, the Sixth Framework Programme is granting pride of place to the nanotechnologies and nanosciences, knowledge-based materials and their industrial applications. In this respect, the federation of projects ...
 
  Nanotrib: six coordinated research projects

Tribo (Nanostructured coating for engineering tribological applications) – This research is seeking to improve tribological performances in the aerospace industry where they are particularly important for safety and energy savings. ...
 

  TO FIND OUT MORE  
 
  •  

      CONTACTS  
     
  • Research DG
    José-Lorenzo Vallés
    email
  • Dr Michael Stüber – Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe – (General coordination) email
    Karen Vercammen, LubriCoat coordinator email  


  •  


       
      Top
      A priority for Europe's future

    With a research budget of €1 300 million, the Sixth Framework Programme is granting pride of place to the nanotechnologies and nanosciences, knowledge-based materials and their industrial applications. In this respect, the federation of projects within the Nanotrib cluster was a forerunner of the new 'integrated projects' instrument. 

    Nanotechnologies under the Sixth Framework Programme
    http://cordis.europa.eu/nanotechnology/ 
    http://cordis.europa.eu/nmp/home.html  

      Nanotrib: six coordinated research projects

    Tribo (Nanostructured coating for engineering tribological applications) – This research is seeking to improve tribological performances in the aerospace industry where they are particularly important for safety and energy savings. The Tribo approach involves developing new processes for depositing thin coatings of solid lubricants in the form of 'nanostructured' powders. 

    Hidur (Improving competitiveness and conserving the environment through high-durability nanocomposite coatings) – The research concerns the depositing of nanocomposite coatings combining metal (chromium, aluminium, titanium) and ceramic materials for various low- or high-intensity friction applications, in particular for the mechanical components of wind power turbines and automotive construction.

    Miclub (In-process structured hard coatings for microlubrication) – This project is aiming to achieve a drastic reduction in lubricant consumption during metal forming. The process consists of depositing a finely microstructured high-friction coating on the surface of the forming tool so as to optimise the action of the lubricating fluid which is captured in the micropores it generates.

    Lubricoat (Environmentally friendly lubricants and low-friction coatings) – Many instances of ground and water pollution result from 'routine accidents' involving the leakage of lubricant fluids from site equipment. This research project is looking at a new generation of lubricants prepared from vegetable and biodegradable synthetic ester oils. The obstacle in using such oils is their susceptibility to thermal deterioration when subject to intense friction. The solution is therefore to reduce this friction by obtaining low-friction coatings such as DLC (diamond-like carbon) for the mechanical parts involved.  

    Nanocomp (New nanocomposite wear-resistant and self-lubricant PVD-coatings) – This research essentially concerns the benefits of PVD (physical vapour deposition) – a process of depositing composite elements in the plasma state using a magnetron. This permits a multilayer outer layer which can include solid coatings providing dry self-lubrication which eliminates the often toxic effects of conventional lubricants.

    Smart Quasicrystals  (Tailored quasicrystalline surface layers for reduced friction and wear) – This project is looking at the problems posed by friction and wear in sliding devices where there can be no lubrication between the contact materials. Such systems are commonly found in aerospace devices as well as in various industrial mechanical applications using agglomerated metal powders. The aim is to explore the possibilities presented by depositing quasicrystalline coatings with very low-friction characteristics. 

    TO FIND OUT MORE

    CONTACTS

    • Research DG
      José-Lorenzo Vallés
      email
    • Dr Michael Stüber – Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe – (General coordination) email
      Karen Vercammen, LubriCoat coordinator email