How Nanoparticles Are Changing the Future of Motor Oil


    Over the past several years, lubrication engineers have been hard at work researching a new method to improve the standard of commercial motor oils. Tribologists, the scientists that study the interaction between surfaces in movement, are thinking big by turning to a tiny hero that can protect metal surfaces and increase oil efficiency. These tiny agents are called nanoparticles—but tiny is an understatement. Nanoparticles are between one and 100 nanometers. To put that into perspective, a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide.
    Despite their size, nanoparticles make a big impact. In regards to motor oil, engineers are studying the lubricating properties of spherical nanoparticles made up of carbon and other chemical compounds. These particles are added to conventional motor oil, and the modified oil’s performance is compared to the traditional formula. Scientists have found that increasing the concentration of nanoparticles in motor oil improves performance by reducing friction, minimizing heat build-up, and ultimately saving energy.
    Nanoparticles work for a couple reasons. First, the spherical particles act as ball bearings between surfaces, generating a smooth, rolling movement that produces less friction. When there is a lower friction coefficient, less energy is wasted in the process. Secondly, many nanoparticles have superior heat conductivity properties. Malaysian scientists recently found that adding just 0.01% of graphene nanoflakes to a conventional oil’s mass improved thermal conductivity by 17%.  Graphene, however, is only one of many types of nanoparticles tested. Other studies have involved copper, titanium oxide, and tungsten disulfide nanopowders. These compounds were also found to be helpful in reducing wear and friction while providing a protective layer to metal surfaces like steel and aluminum.
   If such a small amount of nanopowder can go such a long way, these minuscule compounds could potentially take the place of certain additives that are already used in the market. Their lubricating properties, and the financial implications that these properties have for manufacturers and consumers, means that major changes may be ahead for the production of motor oils.
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