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Here Comes Treble: Science Friction!

"Whenever I tell people that I work for the Southern African Institute of Tribology, they get a gleam in their eyes,'' writes columnist Isabel Bradley.

Whenever I tell people that I work for the Southern African Institute of Tribology, they get a gleam in their eyes. They ask, ‘so is that a study of primitive people in outlandish parts of the world?’ The gleam often becomes a glaze when I explain that, ‘no, it’s the study of friction, lubrication and wear – all engineering of one kind or another.’

Only engineers retain that enthusiastic gleam.

The word ‘tribology’ was taken from the Greek,’tribos’, which means ‘rubbing’. The science of Tribology includes all of the sciences and technologies of interacting surfaces in relative motion. The word was first used in 1966 in the Jost Report, a study conducted in the United Kingdom, which investigated the amount of money lost annually due to friction and wear. This report was titled, ‘Lubrication (Tribology) Education and Research’.

The first important component of Tribology is Friction, defined as ‘the rubbing of one object or surface against another’.
Few people realise just how important friction is in their daily lives. It is almost as important as gravity. Without friction, we would be in endless motion: it ensures that we keep our feet, literally, on the ground.

The earliest ‘scientific discovery’ involving friction was the making of fire by prehistoric man. The friction caused by rubbing two sticks together generates heat which kindles a spark in dry material placed where the sticks meet, ultimately producing a flame. Flint strikes sparks off steel. To this day we still start a fire using various forms of friction – a match scratched against a matchbox, flint and steel igniting a gas-soaked wick in a cigarette lighter.

Tyres on vehicles of all types provide the correct amount of contact between the tyre and the road surface for the required friction to maintain the car’s forward movement, while ensuring the car stays safely ‘on track’. Applying the brake pedal creates internal friction within the brake system, which in turn increases the pressure and the amount of friction between the tyres and the road surface, slowing the vehicle down and ultimately stopping it completely.

Aerodynamics is the study of the properties of moving air, especially the interaction between the air and solid bodies moving through it. Friction between air or gas and a vehicle, is known as ‘drag’. Understanding how to maximise or minimise the amount of drag is one of the many complex subjects studied when learning to design motor-cars, aeroplanes and space-craft. NASA's now-defunct space programme utilising the shuttles called for vehicles which could withstand the intense friction both leaving and returning to the earth's atmosphere.

In this article on Friction, the surface has only been scratched. Scratching itself is a useful and comforting application of friction when one has an itch.

Children often play with ‘friction’ cars. The child spins the wheels of the toy backwards, repeatedly, on a carpet or other rough surface. This application of friction winds a spring tight inside the toy. When released, the car is propelled forwards – often bumping to a halt against the skirting board. Of course, the friction caused by the car bumping against the skirting board soon wears away paint and wood and dents the toy car.
But that brings us to the topic of ‘wear’, which deserves its own in-depth exploration.

Until next time…. ‘here comes Treble!’

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by Isabel Bradley


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