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Reducing wear and tear makes maintenance easier and cheaper

- Wits University

Professor Natasha Sacks aims to make Wits a world expert in tribology.

Sacks, Head of the Carbides and Cermets focus area in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials at Wits, spends her days studying hard metals and explores how to reduce the wear and tear on material surfaces.

She is an expert in tribology – a field that looks at how to reduce the wear of and friction on materials. She has successfully collaborated with local tools manufacturer, Pilot Tools, to improve the recycling of wear-resistant tungsten carbide metals. This is a mutually beneficial relationship that paves the way for greater partnerships with industry in the future.

“My lifelong interest has been in what makes a particular material function in a certain manner,” explains Sacks, the recipient of the Louw Alberts award from the South African Institute of Tribology. “Tribology is a large field in the rest of the world but in South Africa people are only now realising that by reducing wear and friction, you can make maintenance easier and therefore cheaper.”

Sacks’ two main research interests – tungsten carbide and tribology – fit together like a hand in a glove. Tungsten carbide is a wear resistant material, which may also be used to coat softer materials, while tribology is the science behind limiting wear.

“Tribology could be as simple as changing the angle of the tool on the surface during machining,” says Sacks. “However, it is also a highly complex science, involving the various materials, lubricants and additives and it makes up a major part of the operations in both the manufacturing and mining industries.”

Sacks serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Refractory Metals and Hard Materials and served as a session chairperson at the International Conference on the Science of Hard Materials in 2014.

Her aim is to make Wits a world expert in tribology and to expand both the consulting and education capabilities of the Laboratory.

“I also want to expand our expertise in materials to energy and biomaterials and include tests on hip and knee joints,” she concludes.