Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Bearing materials

What materials are used for our bearings?

SAE52100 Chrome Steel (no prefix

This is the standard steel for most ball bearings. It is harder than stainless steel and gives greater life ratings. It also has superior low noise qualities to standard 440 grade stainless steel. Chrome steel actually has a low chromium content and is not corrosion resistant so not suitable for corrosive environments or for dry (no lubricant) bearings as chrome bearings require a protective oil coating on the exterior surfaces which can contaminate the inside of the dry bearing. Chrome steel can tolerate continuous temperatures of up to 120C. Above this temperature, chrome steel undergoes greater dimensional change and the hardness is affected, reducing load capacity. It can withstand up to 150C intermittently but above this temperature, bearing life is significantly reduced.

AISI440 and KS440/ACD34/X65Cr13 Martensitic Stainless Steel (prefix "S")
More resistant to corrosion due to the greater chromium content and the addition of nickel, 440 grade stainless steel is the most commonly used for corrosion resistant ball bearings. The chromium reacts with oxygen in the air to form a chromium oxide layer, known as the passive film, on the surface of the steel. It is hardenable and gives a good combination of strength and corrosion resistance. It is magnetic unlike some 300 grades. The load capacity of 440 grade is approximately 20 percent less than chrome steel so life ratings will be slightly reduced. This grade exhibits good corrosion resistant when exposed to fresh water and some weaker chemicals but may corrode in seawater environments or in contact with many aggressive chemicals. The corrosion resistance also depends on the surface finish. Iron particles and other impurities left on the surface during maching can lead to premature localised corrosion while surface irregularities or poorly finished surfaces also increase the likelihood of corrosion. KS440/ACD34/X65Cr13 grade stainless steel with a lower carbon content is used by EZO Japan and has greater corrosion resistance and superior low noise qualities to the standard AISI440C grade. Corrosion resistance can be increased by passivation (see section below). The 400 grade stainless steel will also withstand higher temperatures than chrome steel, coping with up to 250C constant and up to 300C intermittent with reduced load capacity. Above 300C, bearing life can be considerably shortened.

A note on passivation....
Passivation is a process by which free iron particles and other impurities are removed from the surface of stainless steel by immersion in nitric or citric acid, thus regenerating the passive film. This reduces the likelihood of surface discolouration so making it a useful process in some corrosive environments. Passivation does not increase the resistance of stainless steel to pitting corrosion. This means that where a bearing has incidental contact with, say, salt spray, passivation may be beneficial but it will not offer long term protection in harsher applications.

AISI316 Austenitic Stainless Steel (prefix "S316")
Used for greater corrosion resistance or where bearings must be non-magnetic, bearings made from this material are semi-precision and fine for applications such as marine pulleys but not suitable for precision instrument use. The main problem here is that 316 grade stainless steel is non hardenable, therefore as a softer steel, it will only support low loads and low speeds. The dynamic load rating of a 316 grade bearing may only be 10% of the 440 grade equivalent whereas the maximum speed may be 5% or less of the 440 stainless steel version. 316 grade stainless steel exhibits good corrosion resistance in sea atmosphere and may perform well submerged in seawater. However, as the passive film on the surface of stainless steel relies on the presence of oxygen to regenerate itself, in a low oxygen underwater marine environment (e.g under washers or o-rings) the steel may be prone to pitting or crevice corrosion although 316 grade is still much more resistant to corrosion than 440 grade. Bearings made from 316 grade stainless steel can be used at high temperatures provided a suitable cage material is used. Due to the difficulty of using 316 grade for the cage, 304 grade stainless steel is normally used for metallic cages and nylon for non-metallic cages. Please remember that, as 316 grade bearings are far less popular, minimum quantities may apply and some smaller instrument bearings may not be available.

Plastic - acetal resin (prefix "AC") Bearings made from acetal resin with balls made from 316 stainless steel or glass are more corrosion resistant. They will however, corrode in the prescence of certain chemicals for which made-to-order polyethylene or polypropylene bearings with glass balls may be a better choice. These are generally termed as "plastic" bearings and like 316 stainless steel bearings, are not suitable for anything other than low loads and low speeds and should not be used in temperatures of greater than 90C. These types are also low precision so not suitable for instrument use. The smaller bearings are not usually available in these synthetic materials.

Ceramics - Silicon Nitride (prefix "CB" or "CC")
Some types may be available with steel rings and ceramic balls (hybrid) or "all ceramic" bearings with ceramic rings and balls. These types may not be stock items and could be subject to minimum order quantities. There are many advantages to silicon nitride such as a lower friction coefficient, much greater hardness and temperature resistance. Silicon nitride has 40 percent of the density of bearing steel but is about twice as hard. The lower density means that the balls exert less force on the outer raceways reducing wear while the extra hardness means greater wear resistance. Some ceramic materials such as Zirconia or Alumina are heavier and not as suitable for hybrid bearings although they can be used in full ceramic bearings. Hybrid bearings are also capable of higher speeds (usually up to 30 percent) and can also operate better with limited lubrication as the lower friction material generates less heat. However, ceramic bearings can be significantly more expensive, particularly "all ceramic" bearings partly due to the material and partly due to very low production quantities. The cost may be prohibitive for some sizes or quantities.
WARNING: Ceramics are often overrated particularly hybrid bearings.It is often thought that they will provide incredibly high speeds which is not correct unless you use special retainers or no retainer and the bearing still needs to be high quality. Customers often expect very low frictional torque with low noise and vibration levels. This may be possible but the bearing rings must have very good roundness and a high quality raceway finish while the balls must also have very good roundness and surface finish. There are many cheap hybrid bearings on the market that do a worse job than a good quality bearing with steel balls. Good hybrid bearings often prove too expensive for an application. Most sizes are made to order.

For further information, see cerbec's comments at
Click on the following for a compatibility check for several different materials and chemicals:
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