The trouble with tribology: Why aren't more people talking about it?


Tracy Heath


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Summary Sentence:

Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute's Dr. Rick Cowan explains the benefits of studying tribology and offers details on GTMI's capabilities in this important field.

Full Summary:

Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute's Dr. Rick Cowan explains the benefits of studying tribology and offers details on GTMI's capabilities in this important field.

So a biomedical, a nanoelectronics and a renewable energy researcher walk into a lab… Ok, maybe not your typical opening line for a joke, but these three actually have a research challenge in common that makes this scenario not so laughable. What is that commonality? Tribology.  But what is tribology exactly?

“It’s sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of research disciplines,” joked Dr. Richard Cowan, Senior Research Scientist and Director at the Georgia Tech Laboratory for Extreme Tribology and Diagnostics, at his Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute Brown Bag Seminar. And like comedian Dangerfield, tribology doesn’t get the respect it deserves, because “people don’t realize the benefits,” added Dr. Cowan.

Tribology is, in fact, the science of interacting surfaces. It includes the study and application of the principles of friction, lubrication and wear and, according to Cowan, it involves a variety of disciplines including material science, heat transfer and fluids engineering, to name a few.

And when you think about it, almost every area of research touches on interacting surfaces.  Take for example the biomedical field. When developing replacements for body parts, synthetic materials come in contact with natural tissues. Screws and plates interact with bone in fracture repair, and contact lenses are synthetic materials that not only come in contact with human tissue, but are free to glide around the surface of the eye. These are just a couple of examples of how interacting surface research can affect a human’s quality of life.

Traditionally, however, tribology has focused on the wear, corrosion and friction of industrial equipment in manufacturing facilities, and this alone can have a huge impact. In fact, Dr. Cowan explained, “It is estimated that direct and consequential annual loss due to wear is equal to 1 percent to 3 percent of Gross Domestic Product.”

But looking at the basic description of tribology, the science of interacting surfaces goes far beyond industrial equipment. Dr. Cowan encouraged the students and faculty in attendance to consider how minimizing friction and wear in some research areas could be beneficial, while maximizing friction and wear may be productive in others.

To help accommodate research, Dr. Cowan listed the equipment available in his lab:

  • CETR Tribometer, to measure coefficient of friction, friction force, and wear volume;
  • Spectrometer, for deposits and wear debris analysis;
  • Optical Microscope, for viewing surface patterns under magnification;
  • Optical Profilometer, to measure a surface’s profile and quantify its roughness;
  • Microhardness tester, to measure changes in hardness of materials on a microscopic scale; and
  • The pièce de résistance, a high-speed tribosimulator

“The tribosimulator is the core of our research,” said Dr. Cowan. “Much of what we’re doing uses it, including work being done on behalf of the Department of Defense.”

In a nutshell, the Georgia Tech tribosimulator is a unique device that uses electricity to move an object relative to a stationary one versus propelling the object chemically at a very high rate of speed. For the Department of Defense, this means electromagnetic launcher research. Upon reviewing other current research around the world, tribosimulators of a similar nature have been used to measure the coefficient of friction in hot stamping and to improve lubricants of wire films in the production of fasteners. Dr. Cowan closed his presentation by saying, “Our current research may be specific to the Department of Defense’s needs, but try to see the connections that can be made from its use in other areas, such as the high-speed removal of material in subtractive manufacturing.”

Dr. Cowan’s presentation was part of the GTMI Brown Bag Seminar Series, which takes place each Monday between noon and 1 p.m. in the Manufacturing Research Building, Room 114. Students and faculty are invited and are welcome to bring their lunch to the meeting. If you have questions or you want to be added to the reminder list for these events, please contact Tina Guldberg at

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Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute (GTMI)

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brown bag, GTMI, manufacturing, rick cowan, tribology
  • Created By: Tracy Heath
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Dec 11, 2013 - 6:25am
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:15pm