Nanotech revolution drives 'eternal' consumer benefits

Well, ‘never ever again’ may be overstating it just a little, but two nanotech firms are battling it out in the consumer space to see who wins the battle over who can claim the title of “the ultimate lubricant.”

Imagine being able to add a small bottle of a high-tech oil additive to your car when you buy it, and then be able to use the same oil for the life of the car. Impossible? Just listen to the arguments of the two main progenitors.

In this corner: “Our product literally gives oil eternal life. It educates whatever oil you choose to put into your engine to refresh itself constantly – to convert inevitable waste products into gas which escapes quite normally. Oil companies recommend our product because it makes all lubricants perform better – even the poorer quality oils perform at the level of the best branded products.”

And in the other corner: “Ours is a synthetic oil which does not need additives. It is totally designed from our customer needs backwards and is manufactured molecule by molecule using the newest nanotech production lines. This is the kind of product that could never have been imagined if you start with a fossil fuel. It’s out of the box, and the perfect consumer and manufacturer solution.”

In fact, leading lubricant firms are not impressed. “There have been no real long-term studies of the effect of these new products on engine life. We don’t recommend them above our tried and proven traditional products. We don’t believe our customers will choose to be the guinea pigs for product testing,” said one representative who wished not to be identified.

They claim that the almost US$ 1,000 billion market is not under threat, but initial sales results tell a different story. Young consumers are seduced by the obvious high-tech nature of the value proposition, and older customers are attracted by the promise of convenience.

Already on the horizon is ‘Superlubricity’ – engines made out of specialized carbon materials designed to have virtually zero friction – and may require no additional lubricants. That could totally redefine the lubricants marketplace.

The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, representing almost 70% of global auto production, has estimated that the first of these engines will be in Chinese cars by no later than 2017.

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

In 2004, the Israeli company ApNano Materials revealed the first ever solid lubricant based on nanotechnology. ApNano’s material called NanoLub is made out of nano-spheres of inorganic compounds that were discovered at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel. One of the most important advantages of the NanoLub is the ability to stay effective even on non-polished surfaces. Usually, parts must be mechanically polished to achieve the smoothest possible surface in order to reduce friction. However, because of its nano ball bearing-like structure NanoLub can reduce friction very efficiently even for rough contacting surfaces.

The technology involved in lubrication by nanoparticles is a rapidly developing scientific area and one that has been watched with interest for the past ten years. Nanolubrication offers a solution to many problems associated with traditional lubricants that contain sulphur and phosphorus; and though for some time the production of nanoparticles was restricted by the technologies available, today synthesis methods have been improved to such a level that it is possible to produce large quantities relatively cheaply and efficiently.

Nanotechnology continues to evolve at a stop-start pace and it is certain that at least one of the seemingly random product developments will emerge to be commercially successful, and could change the world of traditional fossil fuel lubricants.

A holy grail is ‘Superlubricity’, a regime of motion in which friction vanishes or very nearly vanishes.

Superlubricity may occur when two crystalline surfaces slide over each other in dry incommensurate contact. This effect, also called structural lubricity, was suggested in 1991 and verified with great accuracy between two graphite surfaces in 2004. The atoms in graphite are oriented in a hexagonal manner and form an atomic hill-and-valley landscape, which looks like an egg-crate. When the two graphite surfaces are in registry (every 60 degrees), the friction force is high. When the two surfaces are rotated out of registry, the friction is largely reduced. This is like two egg-crates which can slide over each other more easily when they are ‘twisted’ with respect to each other.

(References: Wikipedia, Research and Markets and public sources)

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