Lubrication UFOs

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation
Tags: industrial lubricants

Have you heard any intriguing lubrication UFOs stories lately? Maybe you’ve seen or experienced one yourself. You know what I mean those incredible claims about lubricants and lubrication, that over time, evolved into urban legends. Some of these stories have surfaced from a single misinterpreted fact and spread from there. Many have been scientifically discredited but still linger in the lubrication community.

Some of these legends are ancient, dating back a hundred years. For example, in the early days of the petroleum industry, there were different beliefs about the potential value and uses of crude oil. In one case, around 1857, Pittsburgh druggist Samuel M. Kier began bottling petroleum oil from a brine well. Believing it had medicinal power, he sold it to his customers to be taken internally. People died young in those days.

Even as recently as the 1950s, there were reports of people routinely putting particles of cork and wood pulp in automobile engines because they believed it improved lubrication and reduced noise. Early automobiles used about a quart of oil for every five gallons of fuel.

Perhaps you’ve heard claims that oil lasts forever. No, it is not a fine wine that gets better over time. In the environment of a machine, it oxidizes forming acids and sludge, and in some machines, it burns like fuel. Have you heard of microdieseling? If oil could last forever, additives like antioxidants could be spared.

Other lubrication legends are more difficult to recognize. Even among pundits and technocrats, certain stories propagate and are often hard to distinguish from scientific fact. On occasions, we are all guilty of jumping to conclusions based on anecdotal evidence. Have you heard the parable of the six blind men? The men were led to an elephant and asked to describe it. The first man touched the elephant’s trunk and concluded elephants were like snakes. The second touched the leg and said it was big and strong like a tree. The third touched the torso and concluded elephants were like a wall. The fourth held its ear and said it moved like a fan. The fifth touched the elephant’s tusk and compared it to a spear. The last blind man believed the elephant was rope after touching its tail. Each description is correct about that portion of the elephant, however the whole elephant is none of these things. The same is true with lubricant myths and legends, you need the whole picture to make an accurate assessment.

While the lubrication field is rich in folklore, some of these legends are harmful to the progress of lubrication and best practices. These include false claims that lead users down the wrong road to suboptimum or even destructive maintenance practices. Following are examples of lubrication UFOs. Perhaps you’ve heard them too.

  • Sludgy, dirty oil can be cleaned to like-new by adding water, agitating and then draining off the water with the sludge and dirt.
  • Motor oils make superior hydraulic fluids.
  • Water absorbed by grease in-service is normal and improves lubrication.
  • Sludge in the bottom of a sump is harmless unless disturbed.
  • Lubricants are clean if you can’t see sediment or feel grit.
  • The best way to control water contamination in industrial equipment is to keep oil hot.
  • Gear oils can’t be filtered below 10 microns.
  • Grease is better than oil at controlling wear in rolling-element bearings.
  • Oil analysis is a waste of time for lubricants in small compartments.
  • Particle counting is unnecessary for crankcase lubricants.
  • The efficiency of oil filters always gets better over time in typical service.
  • Different brand turbine oils can be mixed safely, without loss of performance.

In my view, while the above statements are generally fictional, there may be isolated cases or exceptions in which they may be found true. Sometimes we see things working well in the short-term but have negative long-term side effects. Many of these effects can result in serious harm to the machine and production losses. When in doubt, proceed cautiously, maybe with small trials on noncritical machinery. It also never hurts to get a second or even a third opinion.

Innovation and change are critical to progress. However, be alert to what sounds too good to be true. Many of us have fallen victim to the silver-tongued salesman who offers a magical tonic for our machine or engine with the promise it will stop wear and friction. Why shouldn’t we hope that a solution for wear and friction has at last been found? Is it any different from our fascination with UFOs? If you’re like me, you secretly hope that they really exist.


About the Author

Jim Fitch, a founder and CEO of Noria Corporation, has a wealth of experience in lubrication, oil analysis, and machinery failure investigations. He has advise...

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