In-situ profilometry for transient testing of automotive materials

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Engineering & the Environment


Start-stop technology is now widely available on mass-produced automotive vehicles. The engine is able to automatically stop when power is not required (at traffic lights, for example) and quickly start up again when the driver needs to move again. This is a useful technology that saves fuel and reduces exhaust emissions. However there are potential problems with the technology as vehicles get older. The engine needs to be running to generate the oil films that protect surfaces from wearing out. When the engine is stopped and then started again, the amount of friction and wear increases compared to when it is continuously running. This could be a problem as vehicles get older as they may wear out earlier than anticipated, causing environmental emissions and being expensive to replace. There is currently no test standard to compare how the surfaces of automotive materials behave when they are repeatedly stopped and started as little scientific work has been done in this area.

In this project we will build a sensor that will measure the extent to which surfaces are being damaged when they are stopped and started many times and compare it to how they behave when they run continuously. This is challenging as the surfaces are often covered in oil and difficult to measure, meaning people usually have to wait until the end of the test to measure them. They then have to perform many tests to try and find out the overall behaviour. This proves expensive and impractical, such that a continuous test is usually preferable.

We propose to develop a sensor that automatically measures how much wear was being generated in a single test, which will make it easier to compare how different materials in the engine behave under transient (start-stop) conditions.

To do this, we will build a profilometer based on a Hall effect sensor. This sensor uses a magnet to detect changes in height. We will use 3D printing to construct a flexure that integrates a very sharp diamond tip and the Hall effect probe into one assembly and then attach it to a 3-axis motor controller. This will allow us to scan surfaces quickly when they have stopped and measure how fast start-stop operation is wearing them out. It is challenging to measure oily surfaces, so we would develop new technology that will clean the surface using compressed air. If successful, this will allow us to measure the durability of existing materials that are subject to environmentally friendly start-stop operation. The test could then be used to look for new materials and coatings to ensure they would last the life-cycle of the vehicle and not become prematurely degraded, causing more emissions or engine repair costs. Ultimately, the project could be key to the way that future materials are chosen for our vehicles because the methodology simulates real engine driving conditions and would form part of automotive material testing standards.

Planned Impact

Through this project we seek to create a novel in-situ profilometer for measuring the response of automotive cylinder liner surfaces to transient start-stop engine cycles.

This will be of benefit to the automotive sector to assess resilience of cylinder liner surfaces in vehicles that experience significant start-stop engine duty cycles in traffic heavy inner city routes. The project would enable the development of design criteria in this sector that would improve the quality of manufactured engines surfaces such that they don't degrade after many years of start-stop operation, benefiting consumers by retaining fuel efficiency and avoiding costly repair. The research has the potential to lead to a new category in engine test standards influencing policy in this area and would be achieved through existing collaborative research links with the Southwest Research Institute, Texas, USA.

The environmental benefits of understanding start-stop engine degradation will ensure current vehicles meet the existing Euro6 emissions standards later in the life-cycle and that future engines are prepared for likely even stricter future emissions targets. The work will enable progress in meeting future emissions targets, support achieving air quality goals and thus impacting health and the wider environment. The project will also give the UK a leading advantage in a globally competitive niche market of tribological test equipment by exploitation of the technology through project partners Phoenix Tribology, transforming the way dynamic in-situ measurement of wear are made across a range of sectors and applications. This will facilitate future research collaborations with surface engineers and lubricant chemists to design the next generation of powertrain surfaces for the vehicles of the future.


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Kamps T (2017) In situ stylus profilometer for a high frequency reciprocating tribometer in Surface Topography: Metrology and Properties

Description We discovered that developing a spring from metallic 3D printed material was very challenging due to the constraints imposed on the printing process itself. The ability to print thin section was attractive from an additive manufacturing process, but in reality such sections require considerable support from surrounding material which often compromised the spring design. Ultimately we were able to manufacture a constrained bi-helical design that was stiff enough to support a diamond stylus yet flexible enough to move due to its' relatively thin cross sectional dimension. Assembling the Hall effect sensor to to assembly was also challenging, yet successful and thus we were able to measure changes in surface topography using this method. The technique will be deployed to measure damage to automotive material surfaces in reciprocating contacts. The project was also able to explore the use of compressed air as a means of locally removing debris and liquid from a surface to be examined. Integrating the stylus and air delivery system was a key output of the project but also illustrated the complexity of utilising this approach as transitions from lamella to turbulent flow would often compromise the measurement. A further grant was submitted to the EPSRC Future Metrology Hub to investigate this specific area of the project.
Exploitation Route Further collaborative work with NPL will ensure the data necessary to complete the original aims of the project is obtained and published. Further ideas of alternative designs came out of this project and will be explored via alternative funding routes.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Electronics,Energy,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport

Description Phoenix Tribology Ltd have developed an in-situ profilometer based on the science developed in this project that integrates into their flagship product. Since the last submission period, Phoenix Tribology have sold a further system taking the total number of commercial units to four.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Chemicals,Education
Impact Types Economic

Description Correlative Chemical Metrology
Amount £252,487 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/X019071/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2023 
End 12/2025
Description NPL - EPSRC IAA Secondment 
Organisation National Physical Laboratory
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have hosted Dr Timothy Kamps, a higher research scientist from NPL, on a secondment to further develop the concepts that arose from this grant around the area of metrology measurements in challenging environments. This was made possible by an EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account grant from the University of Southampton.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Kamps has contributed to research around the area of using alternative approaches to facilitate metrology measurements in challenging environments.
Impact The secondment facilitated the comparison of this technology with similar methods being undertaken at NPL through the EURAMET Multifunctional ultrafast microprobes for on-the-machine measurements project
Start Year 2019
Description Phoenix Tribology Ltd 
Organisation Phoenix Tribology Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The PDRA was able to spend time with the company, learning about their software and electronics and contributing to the development of a commercial product based on the project.
Collaborator Contribution Phoenix Tribology Ltd provided facilities and equipment to allow testing of the concepts behind the project, leading to successful commercialisation of the scientific concepts behind the project.
Impact Phoenix Tribology Ltd were able to develop a commercial in-situ profilometer based on the outputs of this project. The PDRA became skilled in the use of their software and electronics, such that a 3D profilometer could be integrated into their equipment at the University of Southampton.
Start Year 2017
Title In-situ profilometer 
Description An in-situ tactile profilometer for periodic wear measurements. 
Type Of Technology Systems, Materials & Instrumental Engineering 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact The system has been commercially sold to clients in North America and Europe, particularly in the chemical industry.