As American families continue to hit the nation’s roads this summer, their minds are likely on reaching their vacation destinations, not how their vehicles get them there. But that’s not the case for some tribologists, who study how the rubber meets the road, according to a researcher at the University of Missouri-Rolla.
"Not many people know what the study of tribology is," says Dr. Brad Miller, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UMR. "Tribology has three main thrusts: friction, lubrication and wear. For example, tribologists are heavily involved in designing tires to provide better road-handling properties, minimizing the possibility of hydroplaning, and increasing the life of tires by reducing the rate of tire surface wear."
Coined in 1966 from the Greek word "tribos," meaning rubbing, tribology is a branch of science and technology concerned with interacting surfaces in relative motion and with associated matters, such as friction, wear and lubrication.
Friction is vital to automobiles, Miller says. "When a car goes over a puddle while it’s raining, you can have hydroplaning," Miller says. "The job of a tribologist in a tire manufacturing sense is to design the veins in the car tire so that it wicks the water fast enough."
Although friction between the tire rubber and road is important, there are lots of other examples in a car where you want lubrication, Miller says. "You see lots of commercials saying to change your engine oil," Miller explains. "That’s because thermal effects can break down the viscosity of your oil."
Synthetic oils are one option for people who don’t get their vehicle’s oil changed regularly, Miller says. "Synthetic oils maintain their properties longer," Miller explains. "They don’t break down as readily in high-pressure and high-temperature situations, so you can go quite a bit longer between oil changes."
Lubrication has become more important as more and more machinery does the work of humans, Miller says.
"In every machine, you have moving parts you have to lubricate," Miller says. "If you don’t, the machine wears out much faster. Wear is another phenomenon that is studied in tribology. So much of our money is being wasted and thrown away by poorly lubricated machines and machinery that wears out too often."
Although the term may not be familiar, tribology plays a significant role in people’s lives, Miller says.
"Tribology is around people every day, they just don’t know it," Miller explains. "It’s estimated that one third of our global energy consumption is consumed overcoming friction."