Scientists on quest for friction-free oil

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 23, 2015 10:13 AM

By Matthew Stock

Scientists from BP are applying molecular science in their laboratories to make the perfect oil blend to reduce engine friction and increase efficiency.

According to the company, friction caused by various metal-to-metal contact points is a major problem for car engines; costing the UK economy an estimated 24 billion pounds (36.2 billion USD) each year through lost efficiency and damage through wear and tear. The only barrier between the high-force contacts of engine surfaces is a thin layer of lubricant, but they are coming under increasing pressure from modern engines.

At BP's facility in Berkshire, west of London, scientists and engineers are working to create lubricants that operate inside the latest motor engines, while improving the performance and efficiency of vehicles already on the market.

"Engine oil is like the blood of the engine. It touches every part of the engine, it has many jobs to do and it has to keep that engine running efficiently by keeping things clean, keeping metal surfaces apart and reducing friction," explained development technologist, Simon Gurney, at BP's Technology Centre.

The pressure inside modern engines also increases the need for effective fuels and lubricants. The Bugatti Veyron supercar, for example, had an engine pressure of 18 bar when it launched in 2005. Today a standard Ford Fiesta can run a similar pressure.

Gurney said the increasing brake mean effective pressure (BMEP) -- the pressure within an engine -- has put bigger demands on an oil's performance.

"In an engine it's full of metal parts; the oil's primary job is to keep those metal parts apart from one another. So it has to be really strong under these high pressure environments. Now, an engine maybe 20 years ago was maybe making 10 bar of pressure, today; 20 bar. So engine pressures have doubled," he said.

Using a state-of-the-art scanning electron microscope, the scientists at BP can see the damage caused by friction and fuel breakdown forming deposits on engines at a nano-level. It's their job to experiment with hundreds of thousands of oil compounds that could reduce this effect, according to analytical expert Tom Lynch.

"Our task is to find that needle in a haystack that makes that big difference in an improvement of the performance of our oil. And so we strive, using these high end analytical pieces of equipment to be able to understand what each molecule does and what its role is in our lubricant. And we try and tune these molecules to be the best at that job," Lynch told Reuters, adding that they use a mass spectrometer to test molecular formulas 24-hours-a-day at temperatures of up to 6000 degrees Celsius.

Once they've established a viable formula, the oils are transferred to the BP Blend Shop to be produced on a larger scale that could eventually be replicated around the world.

"The demands of modern engines and modern hardware mean that the complexity of our formulations is increasing. We have to experiment with various different materials and determine the best blending methods so they can be replicated globally," said Christopher Rolfe, team leader for blending operations.

"Once the formulation has been sent over from the laboratory, we would then take that formulation and work out how to blend it. The blending methods here get replicated globally, so the understanding of the hardware and the engines that takes place in the laboratory, is then transferred into real-world applications in the blend shop here," he added.

The team concedes that industry moves toward more hybrid engines may present new challenges. But BP says the potential for greater efficiency and CO2 reduction is significant. It's their aim to concoct oil and lubricants that will help today's engines be as environmentally friendly as possible; with the war on friction a key factor in achieving this goal.