Wear Particle Analysis or Ferrography 

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Wear Particle Analysis or Ferrography

Ferrography is a technique that provides microscopic examination and analysis of wear particles separated from all type of fluids. Developed in the mid 1970’s as a predictive maintenance technique, it was initially used to magnetically precipitate ferrous wear particles from lubricating oils.This technique was used successfully to monitor the condition of military aircraft engines, gearboxes, and transmissions. That success has prompted the development of other applications, including modification of the method to precipitate non-magnetic particles from lubricants, quantifying wear particles on a glass substrate (Ferrogram) and the refinement of our grease solvent utilized in heavy industry today.

Three of the major types of equipment used in wear particle analysis are the Direct-Reading (DR) Ferrograph, the Analytical Ferrograph System and the Ferrogram Scanner.

Direct Reading (DR) Ferrograph: The DR Ferrograph Monitor is a trending tool that permits condition monitoring through examination of fluid samples on a scheduled, periodic basis. A compact, portable instrument that is easily operated even by a non-technical personnel, the DR Ferrograph quantitatively measures the concentration of ferrous wear particles in a lubricating or hydraulic oil. The DR Ferrograph provides for analysis of a fluid sample by precipitating particles onto the bottom of a glass tube that is subjected to a strong magnetic field. Fiber optic bundles direct light through the glass tube at two locations where large and small particles are deposited by the permanent magnet. At the onset of the test, before particles begin to precipitate the instrument is automatically “zeroed” with a microprocessor chip as the light passes through the oil to adjust for its opacity. The light is reduced in relation to the number of particles deposited in the glass tube, and this reduction is monitored and displayed on a LCD panel. Two sets of readings are obtained: one for Direct Large >5 microns (DL) and one for Direct Small <5 microns (DS) particles. Wear Particle Concentration is derived by adding DL + DS divided by the volume of sample, establishing a machine wear trend baseline.Machines starting service go through a wearing in process, during which the quantity of large particles quickly increases and then settles to an equilibrium concentration during normal running conditions. A key aspect of ferrography is that machines wearing abnormally will produce unusually large amounts of wear particles indicating excessive wear condition by the DR Ferrograph in WPC readings. If WPC readings are beyond the normal trend a Ferrogram sample slide is made with the fluid for examination by optical microscopy.

The Analytical Ferrograph: Additional information about a wear sample, can be obtained with the Analytical Ferrograph system, instruments that can provide a permanent record of the sample, as well as analytical information. The Analytical Ferrograph is used to prepare a Ferrogram — a fixed slide of wear particles for microscopic examination and photographic documentation. The Ferrogram is an important predictive tool, since it provides an identification of the characteristic wear pattern of specific pieces of equipment. After the particles have deposited on the Ferrogram, a wash is used to flush away the oil or water-based lubricant. After the wash fluid evaporates, the wear particles remain permanently attached to the glass substrate and are ready for microscopic examination.

The Microscope: Ferrograms are typically examined under a microscope that combines the features of a biological and metallurgical microscope. Such equipment utilizes both reflected and transmitted light sources, which may be used simultaneously. Green, red, and polarized filters are also used to distinguish the size, composition, shape and texture of both metallic and non-metallic particles.


Types of Wear Particles: There is six basics wear particle types generated through the wear process. These include ferrous and nonferrous particles which comprise of:

  1. Normal Rubbing Wear: Normal-rubbing wear particles are generated as the result of normal sliding wear in a machine and result from exfoliation of parts of the shear mixed layer. Rubbing wear particles consist of flat platelets, generally 5 microns or smaller, although they may range up to 15 microns depending on equipment application. There should be little or no visible texturing of the surface and the thickness should be one micron or less.
  2. Cutting Wear Particles: Cutting wear particles are generated as a result of one surface penetrating another. There are two ways of generating this effect.
  • A relatively hard component can become misaligned or fractured, resulting in hard sharp edge penetrating a softer surface. Particles generated this way is generally coarse and large, averaging 2 to 5 microns wide and 25 microns to 100 microns long.
  • Hard abrasive particles in the lubrication system, either as contaminants such as sand or wear debris from another part of the system, may become embedded in a soft wear surface (two body abrasion) such as a lead/tin alloy bearing. The abrasive particles protrude from the soft surface and penetrate the opposing wear surface. The maximum size of cutting wear particles generated in this way is proportional to the size of the abrasive particles in the lubricant. Very fine wire-like particles can be generated with thickness as low as .25 microns. Occasionally small particles, about 5 microns long by 25 microns thick, may be generated due to the presence of hard inclusions in one of the wearing surfaces.
  • Cutting wear particles are abnormal. Their presence and quantity should be carefully monitored. If the majority of cutting wear particles in a system are around a few micrometers long and a fraction of a micrometer wide, the presence of particulate contaminants should be suspected. If a system shows increased quantities of large (50 micrometers long) cutting wear particles, a component failure is potentially imminent.
  1. Spherical Particles: These particles are generated in the bearing cracks. If generated, their presence gives an improved warning of impending trouble as they are detectable before any actual spalling occurs. Rolling bearing fatigue is not the only source of spherical metallic particles. They are known to be generated by cavitation erosion and more importantly by welding or grinding processes. Spheres produced in fatigue cracks may be differentiated from those produced by other mechanisms through their size distribution. Rolling fatigue generates few spheres over 5 microns in diameter while the spheres generated by welding, grinding, and erosion are frequently over 10 microns in diameter.
  2. Severe Sliding: Severe sliding wear particles are identified by parallel striations on their surfaces. They are generally larger than 15 microns, with the length-to-with thickness ratio falling between 5 and 30 microns. Severe sliding wear particles sometimes show evidence of temper colors, which may change the appearance of the particle after heat treatment.
  3. Bearing Wear Particle: These distinct particle types have been associated with rolling bearing fatigue:

Fatigue Spall Particles constitute actual removal from the metal surface when a pit or a crack is propagated. These particles reach a maximum size of 100 microns during the microspalling process. Fatigue Spalls are generally are flat with a major dimensions-to-thickness ratio of 10 to 1. They have a smooth surface and a random, irregularly shape circumference.

Laminar Particles are very thin free metal particles with frequent occurrence of holes. They range between 20 and 50 microns in major dimension with a thickness ratio of 30:1. These particles are formed by the passage of a wear particle through a rolling contact. Laminar particles may be generated throughout the life of a bearing, but at the onset of fatigue spalling, the quantity generated increases. An increasing quantity of laminar particles in addition to spherical wear is indicative of rolling-bearing fatigue microcracks.

  1. Gear WearTwo types of wear have been associated with gear wear:

Pitch Line Fatigue Particles from a gear pitch line have much in common with rolling-element bearing fatigue particles. They generally have a smooth surface and are frequently irregularly shaped. Depending on the gear design, the particles usually have a major dimension-to-thickness ratio between 4:1 and 10:1. The chunkier particle result from tensile stresses on the gear surface causing the fatigue cracks to propagate deeper into the gear tooth prior to spalling.

Scuffing or Scoring Particles is caused by too high a load and/or speed. The particles tend to have a rough surface and jagged circumference. Even small particles may be discerned from rubbing wear by these characteristics. Some of the large particles have striations on their surface indicating a sliding contact. Because of the thermal nature of scuffing, quantities of oxide are usually present and some of the particles may show evidence of partial oxidation, that is, tan or blue temper colors.

Many other particle types are also present and generally describe particle morphology or origin such as chunk, black oxide, red oxide, corrosive, etc. In addition to ferrous and non-ferrous, contaminant particles can also be present and may include:  Sand and Dirt, Fibers, Friction polymers, and Contaminant spheres.

Contaminant particles are generally considered the single most significant cause of abnormal component wear. The wear initiated by contaminants generally induces the formation of larger particles, with the formation rate being dependent on the filtration efficiency of the system. In fact, once a particle is generated and moves with the lubricant, it is technically a contaminant.

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