The term grease is used to describe a number of semisolid lubricants possessing a higher initial viscosity than oil. Although the word grease is also used to describe rendered fat of animals, in the context of lubricants, it typically applies to a material consisting of a calcium, sodium or lithium soap base emulsified with mineral or vegetable oil.
A true grease consists of an oil and/or other fluid lubricant that is mixed with another thickener substance, a soap, to form a solid. The term soap is used in the chemical sense, meaning a metallic salt of a fatty acid, which forms an emulsion with the oil. Greases are a type of shear-thinning or pseudo-plastic fluid, which means that the viscosity of the fluid is reduced under shear. After sufficient force to shear the grease has been applied, the viscosity drops and approaches that of the base lubricant, such as the mineral oil. This sudden drop in shear force means that grease is considered a plastic fluid, and the reduction of shear force with time makes it thixotropic. It is often applied using a grease gun, which applies the grease to the part being lubricated under pressure, forcing the solid grease into the spaces in the part.
Soaps are the most common emulsifying agent used, and the type of soap depends on the conditions in which the grease is to be used. Different soaps provide differing levels of temperature resistance (relating to both viscosity and volatility), water resistance, and chemical reactivity. Powdered solids may also be used, such as clay, which was used to emulsify early greases and is still used in some inexpensive, low performance greases.
The amount of grease in a sample can be determined in a laboratory by extraction with a solvent followed by e.g. gravimetric determination.
Greases are used where a mechanism can only be lubricated infrequently and where a lubricating oil would not stay in position. They also act as valuable sealants to prevent ingress of water and dust. Grease-lubricated bearings have greater frictional characteristics due to their high viscosity. Under shear, the viscosity drops to give the effect of an oil-lubricated bearing of approximately the same viscosity as the base oil used in the grease. Lithium-based greases are the most commonly used; sodium and lithium based greases have higher melting point (dropping point) than calcium-based greases but are not resistant to the action of water. Lithium-based grease has a dropping point at 190 °C to 220 °C (350 °F to 400 °F). However the maximum usable temperature for lithium-based grease is 120 °C.
Greases used for axles are composed of a compound of fatty oils to which tar, graphite, or mica is added to increase the durability of the grease and give it a better surface.
Teflon is added to some greases to improve their lubricating properties. Gear greases consist of rosin oil, thickened with lime and mixed with mineral oil, with some percentage of water. Special-purpose greases contain glycerol and sorbitan esters. They are used, for example, in low-temperature conditions. Some greases are labeled “EP”, which indicates “extreme pressure”. Under high pressure or shock loading, normal grease can be compressed to the extent that the greased parts come into physical contact, causing friction and wear. EP grease contains solid lubricants, usually graphite and/or molybdenum disulfide, to provide protection under heavy loadings. The solid lubricants bond to the surface of the metal, and prevent metal-to-metal contact and the resulting friction and wear when the lubricant film gets too thin.
Copper is added to some greases for use in high pressure applications, or where corrosion could prevent dis-assembly of components later in their service life. Copaslip is the registered trademark of one such grease produced by Molyslip Atlantic Ltd, and has become a generic term (often spelled as “copperslip” or “coppaslip”) for anti-seize lubricants which contain copper.
Other types of lubricating material that are soft solids or high viscosity liquids at room temperature are often called grease, though they may not exhibit the shear-thinning properties typical of the oil/soap grease. Petroleum jellies, such as Vaseline, are also sometimes called greases, and are commonly used for lubricating food-handling equipment.
Silicone grease is an amorphous fumed, silica-thickened, polysiloxane-based compound, which can be used to provide lubrication and corrosion resistance. Since it is not oil-based, it is often used where oil-based lubricants would attack rubber seals. Silicone greases also maintain stability under high temperatures, and are often used, in pure form or mixed with zinc oxide, to join heat sinks to computer CPUs.
Fluoropolymers containing C-O-C (ether) bonds for flexibility are soft, and often used as greases in demanding environments due to their inertness. Fomblin by Solvay Solexis and Krytox by duPont are prominent examples.
Apiezon or similar hydrocarbon based greases are the cheapest, and most suitable for high vacuum applications. However, they dissolve in many organic solvents. This quality makes clean-up with pentane or hexanes trivial, but also easily leads to contamination of reaction mixtures.
Silicone-based greases are cheaper than fluoroether-based greases. They are relatively inert and generally do not affect reactions, though reaction mixtures often get contaminated (detected through NMR near δ 0). Silicone-based greases are not easily removed with solvent, but they are removed efficiently by soaking in a base bath.
Fluoroether-based greases are inert to many substances including solvents, acids, bases, and oxidizers. They are, however, expensive, and are not easily cleaned away.
In some cases, the lubrication and high viscosity of a grease are desired in situations where non-toxic, non-oil based materials are required. Carboxymethyl cellulose, or CMC, is one popular material used to create a water-based analog of greases. CMC serves to both thicken the solution and add a lubricating effect, and often silicone-based lubricants are added for additional lubrication. The most familiar example of this type of lubricant, used as a surgical and personal lubricant, is K-Y Jelly.