Next-Generation Lubricants Developed at Argonne National Labs

by Jack McGuinn, Senior Editor

Argonne National Laboratory is home to cutting-edge research on lubrication and coatings

Argonne National Laboratory is home to cutting-edge research on lubrication and coatings (photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratories).

It's not rocket science, but what they do at Argonne National Labs (ANL) is every bit as complex and noteworthy as the work done at NASA. Managed by University of Chicago Argonne LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, the 1,500-acre facility, located 25 miles southwest of Chicago, is the nation's oldest (1946) and largest national laboratory for science and engineering research and employs approximately 3,200 employees—including some 1,000 scientists and engineers, three-quarters of whom hold doctoral degrees. Argonne's annual operating budget of around $695 million supports upwards of 200 research projects and has worked with more than 600 companies and numerous federal agencies and other organizations. Much like NASA, the research facility actively seeks out opportunities to work with industry in the transfer of new technologies to the marketplace through licensing, joint research and other collaborative relationships.

"As a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory, we are tasked with the innovation and development of safe energy technologies (i.e., clean energy and energy efficiency)," says Aaron Greco, Argonne research engineer. "With respect to lubrication and surface engineering solutions, we work closely with our funding agency and industrial partners on the discovery and transfer of the next-generation technologies from fundamental research to commercial application. Typical industries served include: automobile, wind energy, industrial manufacturing and aerospace."

Argonne's principal research and development programs include:

  • Computing, environment and life sciences
  • Energy engineering and systems analysis
  • Physical sciences and engineering
  • Photon sciences

Areas of work most specific to the power transmission engineering field include Argonne's development of its GREET software—which evaluates advanced vehicle technologies—and new fuels and engine dynamics. Also, at Argonne's Advanced Powertrain Research Facility (APRF), researchers conduct vehicle benchmarking and testing activities that provide data critical to the development and commercialization of next-generation vehicles. APRF engineers use the facility's two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive dynamometers and state-of-the-art instrumentation to obtain important information on performance, fuel economy, energy consumption and emissions output. APRF is also capable of testing conventional, hybrid and advanced electrical propulsion systems, by use of a variety of standard and renewable fuels in a precise laboratory environment.

Of most relevance to this article is Argonne's Illinois Center for Advanced Tribology; it recruits the skills and talents of multiple investigators and unique facilities from Argonne and in-state engineering schools at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois' Champaign-Urbana and Chicago campuses. The group works to resolve critical friction as well as wear and lubrication issues in alternative energy technologies, extreme environments and biomedical implants. The center's tribology experts work with industry and state and federal agencies through jointly funded research projects in conducting leading-edge research on the impact of materials, coatings and fluids on energy efficiency, durability and reliability. The ultimate goal is the development of advanced tribological solutions—newly required for the production, delivery and use of alternative fuels. This will require development of:

  • Advanced models of the fundamental mechanisms responsible for friction and wear
  • Materials, coatings, surface textures/treatments and lubricant chemistries
  • Design strategies to improve the performance of critical components

The work is in what Argonne calls "extreme tribology" that affects systems—wind turbines, for example—operating under extreme conditions including high loads, elevated temperatures, high or very low speeds and other harsh environments.

To this end, the center works to develop and integrate materials, coatings, surface texturing and lubricants that provide robust tribological systems that are reliable and durable under extreme conditions. The work includes development of:

  • Super-strong surfaces that can sustain high temperatures and sliding for partial or no-lubrication environments
  • High-temperature lubricants that resist oxidation and degradation
  • Nanolubricants for extreme tribological conditions
  • Surface technologies for operating in sandy media
  • Extreme-condition seals
  • Self-recovery/healing surfaces
Aerial view of Argonne National Labs located just southwest of Chicago (courtesy Argonne National Labs)

Aerial view of Argonne National Labs located just southwest of Chicago (courtesy Argonne National Labs).

Says Greco, "We commonly work with OEMs on projects for the development of lubricant additives and surface engineering techniques, including, but not limited to, vehicle OEMs on advanced drivetrains, wind turbine OEMs on improving component reliability and lubricant formulators on new additive packages.

"A majority of Argonne's funding is from the U.S. Department of Energy; however, it is common for many groups within ANL to contract with outside sources such as OEMs to fund research, termed Work for Others. The tribology group in the past and currently has several WFO projects."

Of particular interest here is the recent development of what Argonne refers to as "smooth, wear-resistant, low-friction nano-composite nitride and diamond-like carbon films." That's certainly a mouthful, but one worth savoring when considering the possibilities for industry. And in case you're wondering, "The primary function of the super-hard and slick coating (SSC) is to reduce friction and eliminate wear and scuffing failures of machine components," says Dr. Osman Eryilmaz, on the lead PIs (principal investigator) for coatings development at Argonne. "By reducing friction, it increases energy efficiency, and by eliminating wear and scuffing—defined as a sudden catastrophic failure—it increases durability and reliability. It is a designer coating and consists of special ingredients that are predicted by a crystal-chemical model. The selection of the Mo and Cu as the main coating ingredient is made on the basis of this model. This model can help identify the kinds of coating ingredients that are needed in a nano-composite coating architecture for achieving ultra-low friction and wear."

What's more, this new coating is ready for general release, says Eryilmaz.

"Super-hard nano-composite coating is in the technology transfer stage right now," he says. "Scale-up efforts are completed and most of the focus is on optimization of process (at the) manufacturing level, and it has to be product-specific. Of course R&D effort does not end at this point, since the super-hard nano-composite coating mentioned here (Mo-N-Cu) is a part of a big family. Most of the R&D efforts are on developing better-performing coatings in harsher engine-working conditions—i.e., higher temperatures, higher contact pressures, engine oils with lower additives. Low viscosity, low friction and low or no wear (both coated side and counter-face) are the targets. Coatings that provide desired properties at these conditions will also enable new engine designs (with) high power density."

Given the alluring potential for the coating described here, one naturally wonders what else Argonne has up its sleeve. For that response we went to George Fenske, manager of ANL's Tribology Section. And if your company is a player in the wind energy market, listen up.

"On the wind energy horizon, there is keen interest in developing wind energy. Larger and larger turbines are being designed and built; some up in the 5MW range. Reliability is a critical issue for these systems, with design lifetimes in the 15-20-year time frame being common. The bearings and gears in these units are quite large, have large gear reductions and are subject to large, non-steady stresses. Repair and maintenance is not simple; these units are located on towers and sit hundreds of feet above ground level. And repairs that involve replacing large mechanical systems often necessitate use of large cranes which can be expensive. (And so) there is considerable interest in the development of advanced lubrication systems—lubricant, additives and materials of construction—for these units to improve their reliability and durability. Considerable work is underway to develop improved materials for gears and bearings and lubricants to mitigate pitting.

"Similar trends can be identified for the manufacturing sector where higher efficiency is becoming more critical as energy prices continue to rise. Geothermal energy is an emerging field that shows potential for energy production. The aggressive environment in which energy production systems must function is very aggressive compared to traditional drilling environments and will require advanced materials and lubricants."

For more information:
George R. Fenske
Manager, Argonne National Labs
Tribology Section
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, IL 60439
Phone: (630) 252-5190
Fax: (630) 252-5568