Who will train tomorrow’s tribologists?

Dr. Rajesh Shah, Bryan Johnson and Dr. Robert Jackson | TLT Education February 2019

More programs like the tribology minor at Auburn University are needed if our overlooked science is to keep the world moving.

Auburn University campus.
© Can Stock Photo / Robhainer

Fifty years ago, the Jost Report showed how managing friction could lead to massive monetary savings for nations and globally. 
Engineers will need in-depth tribology knowledge to solve tomorrow’s resource, environmental and energy challenges. 
The program at Auburn University is a prototype for educational institutions interested in advancing specialized tribology training.

The seminal publication known as the Jost Report coined the phrase tribology more than 50 years ago. Since then the future of tribology has been inextricably linked with technological advancements related to friction, lubrication and wear. The control of friction and wear is an element of mechanical design. It is addressed through the proper selection of lubricants and the engineering of surfaces, speed and load to pave the path toward safer and better machinery and transport as well as innovations in the medical sphere. Additional advancements in design beyond today’s baseline for both technology and its application are needed to meet future challenges.

The next generation of tribologists faces enormous technical challenges; many of their decisions will have grave consequence for both planetary health and global economies. Facing these challenges requires specific technical knowledge coupled with a can-do, hands-on capability. Unfortunately the skills required to optimize this success are not readily available through most university engineering programs. This is in part due to a lack of understanding of tribology’s economics. There is a strong need to impart the financial benefits of the tribology field as a key motivator for the next generation of scholars and then to steer some of the best and brightest minds toward a tribology career path. Auburn University achieves this goal through its forward-thinking tribology program, which offers a minor in tribology engineering plus graduate offerings.

Global energy usage is forecasted to continue expanding and stretching the capacity of natural resources which, in turn, lead to continued environmental impacts. A measurable percentage of energy produced is lost to friction. In the Kenneth Holmberg and Ali Erdemir publication, Influence of Tribology on Global Energy Consumption, Costs and Emissions, calculations regarding the impact of friction and wear on energy consumption, economic expenditure and CO2 emissions are reviewed and framed on a global scale. Their article includes an impact study that encompasses the four main energy consuming sections: transportation, manufacturing, power generation and residential. 

The mitigation of wear and wear-related failures continues to be a major economic concern. According to Holmberg and Erdemir, a half a century ago the UK addressed machinery breakdowns with advanced tribological ameliorations and found possible economic savings of up to 95% within a decade. The financial savings breakdown was estimated at 74% for friction reduction and 26% from improved wear protection. The wear rate reduction was ultimately considered to be more economically crucial of the two, as the wear of individual parts and components was shown to lead to more serious equipment failures. This allowed more significantly operational breakdowns that then negatively affected productivity and production cost.

The effects of wear can be quite substantial and are far more opportunity rich in some industries than in others. For example, mining operations place machinery in an abrasive-rich environment. The mining section of the Holmberg and Erdemir article elucidated the fact that of the total maintenance cost, a significant portion of it was a result of costs associated with the replacement of worn parts. These costs include materials, direct maintenance labor costs and production down time. In this manner, it can be inferred that the maintenance costs in mining are driven by worn parts. This leads to an open question of significant opportunity for the tribologist to innovate and reduce the maintenance costs related to machinery wear.

Nuclear power generation can be used for another type of example as machinery is installed and used in much cleaner settings than mining. The Palo Verde Generating Station, one of the largest global producers of emission-free energy, is a large industrial facility with a mature and carefully maintained and managed design. Opportunities to further reduce its carbon footprint come through another tribological field of lubricant condition monitoring. The occurrence of wear is an artifact of machinery operation, and its effects can be monitored and then reduced or avoided by managing lubricant cleanliness to a criterion of “as clean as possible.” The capability to validate lubrication selection is another benefit of condition monitoring. The benefits of oil cleanliness and proper selection of lubricants apply not only to machinery in mining or nuclear power but to machinery in any industrial or transportation setting.

Holmberg and Erdemir determined that the total amount of energy obtained from common generation sources such as coal, gas, nuclear, wind, etc., can be cumulatively considered as the total primary energy supply (TPES). The TPES for a region is the energy generated in that region plus imports and minus the exports. The global TPES in 2014 was 575 EJ (13,700 Mtoe, million tons oil equivalent 0) and of that total, 167 EJ was consumed by the energy or power generation industry sector to produce electricity and heat. This suggests that the total TPES of global energy consumption in 2014 was approximately 396 EJ (9,425 Mtoe). The energy was utilized with the following distribution: 

29% for industrial activity
28% for transportation
34% for domestic, including residential, services, agriculture, forestry, etc.
9% for non-energy use, typically as raw materials.

The turbine from one of Arizona Public Service's plants. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Public Service.)

The study concludes that approximately 23% (11 EJ) of the world’s total energy consumption is required to address tribological contacts. Twenty percent of that total is used to overcome friction while 3% is used to manufacture and replace worn-out parts and extraneous equipment. Achieving state-of-the-art surface finishes and carefully making material selection followed by optimal lubrication choices to mitigate friction and wear could potentially diminish energy consumption by 18% in eight years and 40% in 15. To put this into perspective, prioritizing these attributes would equate to annualized savings on the order of about 1.4% GDP and reduce total energy consumption by 8.7% in the long term.

Short-term energy savings from reduced friction are likely to be most pronounced in transportation (25%) and in the power generation sector (20%) of typical usage. Additionally, it was concluded that the potential savings in the residential and manufacturing arenas could be approximated by about 10% each. The longer-term savings for these same four broad sectors could amount to as much as 55%, 40%, 25% and 20%, respectively.

While the advancement of tribology is clearly of critical importance to our profession, most engineers don’t receive a targeted formal education in tribology. As the industry continues to be challenged with replacing an aging work force, the problem of a lack of trained tribologists has been further illuminated. Many universities have capable research programs with some form of elective courses to obtain piecemeal tribology training. A few offer advanced degrees with an emphasis in tribology. Unfortunately a lack of undergraduate tribology education within engineering programs exists. In collaboration with industry, the undergraduate tribology minor at Auburn was created and officially approved in 2012 with the aim to address some of these issues. 

Since tribology is inherently multidisciplinary, the Auburn minor is open to undergraduate students of all science and engineering majors. It requires students to complete five courses ranging from friction, wear and lubrication to organic chemistry. A local STLE student section was founded for students who are interested in the field but do not wish to pursue the full minor. Every fall the program has hosted a symposium and career fair. More than a dozen companies attend, learn about the minor and network with students about internships and careers. New companies and contributors are invited to participate in the annual symposium and fair. Indicative of Auburn University’s commitment to grow the program, STLE-member Dr. Kyle Schulze from the University of Florida has been hired as a new professor. His research is in bioengineering and biotribology, which will allow the core of the minor to expand into an already strong biomedical engineering focus.

Auburn boasts the 15th highest ranked online engineering program. In 2018 the curriculum was expanded by creating a Tribology Engineering Graduate Certificate. The certificate is aimed toward individuals working in industry, and all course work is available online. To earn the certificate, students complete three courses in friction, wear and lubrication; boundary and full-film lubrication; and multiscale contact mechanics. 

The greatest measure of success of the Auburn University Tribology program will be when other universities follow suit with similar undergraduate programs. Several appear to be in the works. These academic movements may be considered as a historic course correction for the engineering field. Tribology education appears to have a brightening future. Its continued development certainly benefits industry as well.

The fact remains tomorrow’s engineers will require an informed and in-depth acumen in tribology to ensure that they successfully circumvent some of the technical mistakes of yesterday. A gap of perception at all levels of management still exists as additional understanding and an appropriate respect for the importance of the application of tribological knowledge is an open issue. 

A recent STLE international survey surmised that nearly two-thirds of approximately 1,000 respondents were not satisfied with the public’s comprehension and awareness of tribology as a subject matter. So, in commemoration of the more than 50 years since the groundbreaking Jost Report, it would be an apt and practical tribute to ensure that the fundamental facets of tribological know-how are integrated within the heart of education. This knowledge would form a buttress in the training of all engineering students everywhere. Auburn’s tribology engineering minor is setting an important example to others in how this should be done. Kudos to Auburn for leading the way.

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Dr. Raj Shah is currently a director at Koehler Instrument Co. in N.Y. and a chartered petroleum engineer. More information on Raj can be found here

Bryan Johnson is PVGS lubrication engineer at Arizona Public Service. Both he and Shah serve on the tribology advisory board at Auburn University. You can reach Johnson at BJOHNS03@apsc.com.

Dr. Robert Jackson is the tribology program director and professor in the department of mechanical engineering at Auburn University. You can reach him at robert.jackson@eng.auburn.edu.

More information on the undergraduate tribology minor program at Auburn can be found here.