Trends in tribology and lubrication

STLE on the potential innovations for a more sustainable future

In a fast changing world, the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE) is keeping a close watch on the technologies and challenges impacting its members. Neil Canter, author of the latest 2023 STLE Emerging Issues and Trends Report, talks to Insight about the key findings and the ways in which tribology and lubrication engineering are increasingly being called upon to help create a cleaner and more sustainable future.

Neil CanterNeil Canter, STLE

“The future for individuals who are tribologists or are considering a career in tribology is bright,” says STLE Emerging Issues and Trends Report author, Neil Canter. “In my view this is because they will have major opportunities to use their skills to make a difference in meeting the challenges that will promote the growth of sustainable practices.”

Sustainability – a central and pervasive theme

Sustainability has arguably become the single most important issue facing the tribology and lubrication field. Growing global sustainability aspirations are creating new issues in the many sectors as technologies need to be replaced to deal with global energy and climate challenges. And here, as Neil explains, the application of existing and novel tribology approaches has the potential to not only save energy but also reduce emissions. “An analysis of a study1 conducted to assess how tribology can save energy in the US, shows the potential for a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that could represent 5% of the US share for limiting global warming to 1.5oC by 2030, which is more than many other technologies.”

“While the definition of ‘sustainability’ is not simple,” Neil continues, “many organisations in the major sectors that tribology and lubrication impact - including transportation, energy, manufacturing and medical/health - are aggressively working to meet their sustainability ambitions.”

"This trend towards sustainability requires tribologists and lubrication engineers to develop new solutions to the latest challenges."

"In our sustainability section we not only explore the UN’s 17 development goals for sustainability but also look closely at concepts such as carbon footprint, carbon handprint, cradle-to-grave, Scope emissions and life cycle assessment (LCA) and explore end-user trends and the role of tribology.”

Another area covered in this section is the decarbonisation of the power generation sector - of growing interest since the increase in demand for energy means power generation is anticipated to more than double by 2050. “While the long term goal is a move to zero-carbon renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and green-hydrogen, human civilization will still require the use of carbon-based materials and power sources, at least in the short term, to maintain quality of life. We can see an increase in carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) to minimise greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

In addition, assessing the viability of sustainable lubricants, both biobased and re-refined, is a growing trend in support of sustainability aspirations. “The growing demands placed on lubricant manufacturers to demonstrate a lower carbon footprint and show potential for a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ product lifecycle is continuing to drive the demand for lubricants prepared from renewable or circular sources. A recent study2 found that GHG emissions produced in the re-refining of lubricants produce a minimum of 50% of the emissions generated in processing virgin mineral oil base stocks. And we are seeing new base stocks being produced from other waste streams, such as plastics, through a process known as upcycling.”

“Ensuring these new lower carbon fluids can meet the performance requirements for a wide range of applications will be an important challenge for lubricant engineers.”

Electrification and alternative fuels

In this latest STLE report, the rapid increase in demand for digital content and the increasing use of electronics in transportation vehicles has led to a merger of their requirements under the term ‘electrification’.

“We are seeing an increase in the number and size of data centres, the greater use of the internet and power electronics and a higher percentage of electric vehicles,” Neil explains. “The common factor for all of these applications, as we have already noted, is the greater need for power and here we are seeing a growing use of solar and wind power to generate electricity, which brings new challenges associated with ensuring a stable electric grid. In addition, this trend to electrification has increased the operating temperature of all these systems, which can reduce their long-term viability. In our view, the demand for more effective procedures for removing heat is of ever growing importance. Alongside thermal management, electric vehicle fluids will need to deliver suitable electrical conductivity properties, antiwear performance, copper corrosion characteristics, foaming and friction control and compatibility with materials (particularly plastics). All of these are areas where tribologists and lubricant engineers can contribute.”

However, as Neil goes on to explain, finding the right battery type to achieve the desired vehicle performance is still in progress and other energy sources are being explored. “While progress is continuing in the development of electric vehicles, other carbon neutral, or even carbon zero fuels such as green hydrogen, have the potential to replace hydrocarbon fuels in internal combustion engines. However, the combustion of hydrogen, as compared to gasoline and diesel fuel, presents a different set of dynamics regarding engine hardware. This means tribologists will need to help match lubricants and materials to the specific needs of these engines.”

Future outlooks

As for the future, Neil suggests, supply chain, sustainability, and electrification, challenges are likely to persist.

“Improved lubricants and tribology practices will provide answers to meet future needs and facilitate the movement towards sustainability. But, as you can imagine, predicting the future is extremely difficult, particularly because there is great uncertainty about the impact of external factors on supply chains. We all need to work more closely together to look for a robust supply of more sustainable raw materials and a better clarification of the definition of sustainable supply chains is needed to help us get there. Future lubricants will need to meet specific requirements over longer operating periods and be produced from more sustainable sources including re-refining and waste materials.”

“In my view we have a golden opportunity to define sustainability in terms of tribology and lubrication, which will go a long way towards demonstrating the valuable contributions these disciplines will continue to make into the future."

In addition to sustainability and electrification, the STLE 2023 Report on Emerging Issues and Trends in Tribology and Lubrication Engineering also explores the manufacturing and medical/health sectors. Field issues including supply chain, workforce, research funding, materials costs and availability, safety and the environment, and government regulation are also covered. Click here to find out more.



1 Carpick, R.W., Jackson, A., Sawyer, W.G., Argibay, N., Lee, P., Pachon Garcia, A. and Bennett, K. (2017), Tribology Opportunities for Enhancing America’s Energy Efficiency: A Report to the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, 1-116,


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