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Gear Pitting and Lubrication

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Pitting occurs when fatigue cracks are initiated on the tooth surface or just below the surface. Usually pits are the result of surface cracks caused by metal-to-metal contact of asperities or defects due to low lubricant film thickness. High-speed gears with smooth surfaces and good film thickness may experience pitting due to subsurface cracks. These cracks may start at inclusions in the gear materials, which act as stress concentrators, and propagate below and parallel to the tooth surface. Pits are formed when these cracks break through the tooth surface and cause material separation. When several pits join, a larger pit (or spall) is formed. Another suspected cause of pitting is hydrogen embrittlement of metal due to water contamination of the lubricant. Pitting can also be caused by foreign particle contamination of lubricant. These particles create surface stress concentration points that reduce lubricant film thickness and promote pitting. The following guidelines should be observed to minimize the onset of pitting in gear units:

  • Reduce contact stresses through load reduction or by optimizing gear geometry.

  • Steel should be properly heat-treated to high hardness. Carburizing is preferable.

  • Gear teeth should have smooth surfaces produced by grinding or honing.

  • Use proper quantities of cool, clean, and dry lubricant with the required viscosity.

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