When the difference between winning and losing is as quick as the blink of an eye, even the smallest change can make a big difference. More racing teams are making the switch from steel to ceramic ball bearings to help them win the checkered flag. Makers of ceramic bearings say that they can reduce friction by up to 40 percent and decrease weight by 60 percent over the steel variety. That's attracting interest from racers of all stripes. Larry McBride's Top Fuel Kawasaki, a 1,250-hp, 1,075-lb bike that covers a quarter mile in 5.88 seconds, sports 20 ceramic bearings. Hot rodder Greg Anderson uses eight hybrid ceramic bearings in his Pontiac Grand Am, helping the NHRA Prostock Champion set both the elapsed -time and mile-per-hour records last year. Bearings might seem like a small factor, but they can add a lot. "We've tested bikes on the quarter mile. They can pick up three or four miles per hour just by switching to ceramic bearings," says Dave Conforti, President of Worldwide Bearings Inc., (http://rbi.ims.ca/3849-547). He is a racing enthusiast who builds mostly custom bearing units using Cerbec balls made from boron nitride by Saint-Gobain Advanced Ceramics of
East Granby, CT. (http://rbi.ims.ca/3849-550). They're used throughout the vehicle in any application that normally uses steel balls. Even a small number of bearings can make a difference. "On a 9-hp, two-cycle engine, changing two crankshaft bearings provided a full 1-hp improvement," Conforti says. The bearings are finding wider acceptance in industrial applications, too. There, the long lifetimes can offset the premium price—which varies widely across bearing sizes ranging from 8 to 100 mm in diameter. "When you factor in the fact that they have three to five times longer lifetimes, you're probably saving money," Conforti says. But that's not a key concern for most racers. "They don't care if the bearing lasts—just so long as they can go faster," he says.
With a better understanding of materials’ response to load and temperature, researchers could potentially use the knowledge to improve design. The research could even help geologists studying plate tectonics.
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