In layman's terms, friction is a force that resists one surface from sliding or rolling over another. Therefore, it can be said that friction only occurs when two surfaces are in relative motion, such as when a crankshaft is rotating in a journal bearing or when a ball bearing is rolling along its raceway.

A microscopic view of these surfaces in relative motion reminds us that each surface contains tiny, jagged asperities (rough and uneven surfaces), no matter how closely these surfaces are machined. Without some form of separation, such as that formed by a lubricant film, these surface asperities may seize upon contact. At the very least, some abrasion, adhesion and/or ploughing of these asperities will take place as the movement occurs.

A number of factors affect the frictional conditions at the interface between these two surfaces in relative motion. These factors are:

  • Surface Finish — The number, roughness and even the directional contact points of the asperities on the surfaces can dramatically affect the frictional coefficient.
  • Temperature — Both ambient and operational temperature can affect friction. For example, temperature is a critical element in whether an anti-wear or extreme pressure additive will be effective in certain applications.
  • Operational Load — Friction varies directly with load. A load exceeding the designed capacity will dramatically increase the frictional coefficient.
  • Relative Speed — Increasing the speed beyond that which is safely specified will dramatically increase friction.
  • Nature of the Relative Motion between the Surfaces — Sliding motion versus rolling motion can affect the coefficient of friction.
  • Lubricant Characteristics — These characteristics are the base oil, the viscosity of the base oil and the additives combined with the base oil for the particular formulation.

The challenge is to reduce the coefficient of friction as much as possible by either eliminating the factors that may have an adverse effect on the surface in relative motion or at the very least controlling those factors.

Generally, there are three ways to reduce friction:

  1. The use of bearing surfaces that are themselves sacrificial, such as low shear materials, of which lead/copper journal bearings are an example.
  2. Replace sliding friction with rolling element friction, such as with the use of rolling element bearings.
  3. Improve overall lubrication either by changing viscosity, using differing or improved additives or through the use of different lubricants themselves, i.e., synthetics, solids, etc.