A Much Closer Look at Particle Contamination

Jim Fitch, Noria Corporation
Tags: particle counting, contamination control

This isn’t your usual article on how important clean oil is to lubricant health and machine reliability. Yes, we are going to talk about particle contamination, but we’re going to take a much closer look at the destructive traits of this nearly invisible material that cohabitates with our lubricants. As it turns out, there is a lot more to particles than their size and count. This column will peer into the intricacies of the physical and chemical properties that make up and characterize solid particle contamination.

I’ll begin by discussing ten particle characteristics that should be important to tribo analysts and lubrication professionals. Each of these characteristics or traits influences the health of lubricated machinery. While the name of the trait may be familiar, the damage it causes may not be. Let’s start down the list:

Particle Characteristics
Particle Size. This is usually defined as a particle’s equivalent spherical diameter in microns (micrometers) and characterizes the ability of the particle to bridge the working clearances of moving machine surfaces. When large particles get crushed into smaller particles, they tend to get closer in size to a machine’s working clearances. The closer the particle size is to these working clearances, the more it enters the gap and causes abrasion or surface fatigue to opposing surfaces. For instance, a single 40-micron particle can theoretically be broken into 512 individually destructive five-micron particles.

Surface Area. When large particles break into many smaller particles, the cumulative surface area in contact with the oil increases manyfold. For instance, if you break a particle into 100 equal-size pieces, you have roughly 4.5 times more interfacial surface area. So in the example above, a 40-micron particle, when broken down into five-micron particles will produce eight times more surface area in contact with the oil. Why is this important? The more surface area relative to particle mass, the slower the particle settles (longer residence time in the oil), the more it attracts and emulsifies water, the more it can incite catalytic reactions with the oil, the more it can tie up the performance of polar additives (like antiwear agents, rust inhibitors and the like), and the more air bubbles it can nucleate, inhibiting their efficient detrainment from the oil. The list could go on.

Particle Shape/Angularity. To some of you, this may seem to be of no real importance, but in the world of tribology, it is amazingly central to the wear rate caused by particles. Spherical-shaped particles are like ball bearings, they may cause surface indentations but are much less likely to cut or abrade. On the other hand, particles with high annularity (possess sharp, acute angles between facets) are far more prone to impart three-body abrasion (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Wear Rate vs. Particle Angularity

Angular particles are generally caused by the crushing (comminution) of large particles into smaller particles (Figure 2). If a spherical particle were broken into 100 smaller particles having the general shape of cubes, this would expose sliding machine surfaces to a wrecking crew of 800 annular edges.

Figure 2. Rock Dust from
Mining, Quarry or Excavation

Hardness. Hardness relates to a particle’s compressive strength, that is, its resistance to deformation (plastically or elastically) or fragmentation by crushing. Particle hardness relative to surface hardness largely defines its ability to cause wear and fatigue. As a point of reference, common dirt particles consist largely of silica and alumina particles which are harder than a hacksaw blade (high-speed steel). Only ceramic surfaces found on some bearings and cam followers would be of similar hardness. The relative hardness of common particles is shown in Table 1.

Particle Type
Typical Specific Gravity
Mohs Hardness*
Burrs and machining swarf
6 - 9
3 - 7
6 - 9
3 - 7
3 - 6
7 - 9
Floor dust
1 - 5
2 - 8
Road dust (mostly silica)
2 - 6
2 - 8
Mill scale
Coal dust
1.3 - 1.5
Ore dust
Wood pulp
0.1 - 1.3
1.5 - 3
RR ballast dust (limestone)
2.68 - 2.8
5 - 9
Quarry dust (limestone)
2.68 - 2.8
5 - 9
Foundry dust
Slag particles (blast furnace)
Aluminum oxides
Red iron oxides (rust)
2.4 - 3.6
5 - 6
Black iron oxides (magnitite)
4 - 5.2
5 - 6
Copper oxides
3.5 - 4
Tool steel
7 - 8
6 - 7
Forged steel
7 - 8
4 - 5
Cast iron
6.7 - 7.9
3 - 5
Mild steel
7 - 8
Alloys of copper, bronze
7.4 - 8.9
1 - 4
Alloys of aluminum
2.5 - 3
1 - 3
Babbitt particles
7.5 - 10.5
1.7 - 2.0
*Mohs hardness scale 1-10, diamond=10, fingernail=1
Table 1. Examples of Particle Hardness and Density

Density. Density or specific gravity influences how buoyant particles are in lubricating oils. Heavy particles will settle much more rapidly in tanks and sumps (Table 1). It takes only 2.8 minutes for a 20-micron babbitt particle to settle one-half inch in an ISO 22 turbine oil. Heavy particles are much more likely to be removed by centrifugal separators. They are also more prone to cause particle impingement erosion in circulating oil systems where oil flows at high velocity, sending heavy and hard particles on destructive trajectories.

Composition. While terrain dust is known for its wear-inducing potential due to its hardness, it is also chemically inert. However, the wear particles generated by this dust in lubricants are far from inert. This is due to the fact that these nascent particles are often composed of iron, copper or tin. Although less hard and abrasive, wear metals promote oil oxidation which in turn contributes to the formation of corrosive acids, varnish and sludge.

Polarity. Many particles have unique polar affinities or possess ionic charges. This can lead to the mass transfer and depletion of polar oil additives such as rust inhibitors, antiwear agents, detergents, dispersants and extreme pressure additives which are more prone to hitch a ride on these particles. Also, polar particles are more apt to cluster and obliterate fine oil passages, oil ways and silt lands. This is compounded if water is present, which has a tendency to cling to polar solid contaminants, further promoting obliteration and the formation of emulsions and sludge.

Magnetic Susceptibility. Permanent magnets are used in some filters and online wear particle sensors. Particles of iron or steel that are attracted to a magnetic field are preferentially separated from the oil by these devices. Later, any particles that may have sloughed off these separators and sensors (due to shock or surge flow conditions) are often left magnetized. They can then magnetically grip onto steel orifices, glands and oilways restricting flow or simply interfering with machine part movement. Additionally, directional control and servo valves commonly used in hydraulic systems deploy the use of electro magnets in their solenoids. The actuation of these valves can be adversely affected by the magnetic susceptibility of iron and steel particles that are attracted by the solenoid.

Conductivity. Now finally here’s a positive characteristic of particle contamination. In recent years, the electrification of lubricating oils has become a greater and more common problem due the high purity of basestocks that are frequently used by lubricant formulators.

Circulating oil can build a static charge in the oil due to molecular friction. This can lead to lightening strikes within the body of the oil, charring the oil in the path of the arcing electricity. Conductive particles are effective at dissipating charges, preventing damage to the oil from static discharge. According to one study, particle contamination equivalent to an ISO 18/15 was sufficient to dissipate static charge buildup in contrast to low contaminant levels of ISO 13/10 or cleaner, which led to strong spark discharges.

Particle Count. A particle of the right size, shape and hardness is a potential destructive contact waiting to happen. Two such particles proportionally multiply the risk and wear rate, etc. In fact, the total amount of surface material removed could easily be four to ten times the weight of the original offending particle. This risk is greatest for unfiltered bath- and splash-lubricated machines. We must also remember the reproductive cycle of particle contamination – particles make babies. Afterward, these young brats will convert to a life of crime themselves, causing more wear and lubricant degradation. It goes without saying that controlling particle population growth is a fundamental and effective strategy in stabilizing machine reliability.

Four Ways Particles Take Your Money
Particles rob you of your money while you sleep. They also take your money while you’re awake. They are silent but skillful at robbing a company of precious productivity and profits. Sadly, controlling particle contamination rarely shows up on a plant manager’s list of goals and objectives. More sadly, most managers don’t have a clue that these little bandits are stealing them blind day after day.

There are four fundamental ways particles take your money. While these are not at all equal in magnitude, depending on the machine and application, each can have marked impact on your company’s pocket book.

  1. Surface Removal. This is a biggie as it can disrupt your business by causing embarrassing production losses and expensive repairs.

  2. Restriction of Oil Flow and Part Movement. Particles can form deposits, jam part movement and starve machines of oil. While no wear may have occurred, this too can contribute to business interruption and expensive repairs.

  3. Increased Consumption of Lubricants and Filters. The ways in which particles can shorten lubricant service life and impair its performance are numerous. Undeterred particle ingression leads to wastefully high filter consumption.

  4. Higher Energy Consumption and Environmental Impact. There is an almost endless list of ways particles increase friction, impair antifriction lubricant performance, and decrease combustion efficiencies in engines and volumetric efficiencies in hydraulic and lubricating oil systems. The more energy and fuel consumed, the more waste stream that enters and pollutes our atmosphere.

So there you have it a much closer look at particle contamination. Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at what’s in your oil.

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 advised hundreds of companies on developing their lubrication and oil analysis programs. Contact Jim at

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