Materials for Pivots and Knife Edges


Middle-aged readers may remember expensive watches with the words "17 Sapphires" printed on the face, roughly where the word "Quartz" now appears. The message was that the mechanism had bearings made of sapphire; (Al203)—which was good. A really expensive watch had, not sapphires, but diamonds.

Diamond and sapphire are examples of good materials for knife edges and pivots. These are bearings in which two members are loaded together in nominal line contact or point contact, and can tilt relative to one another or rotate freely about the load axis (Figure 1). The main requirements of materials for such bearings are high hardness—to carry the contact pressures; and high modulus—to give positional precision and to minimise frictional losses. The desired combination of these properties depends on the objective: maximum precision or maximum load-carrying capacity. Table 1 summarises the requirements.

Figure 1 A knife edge and a pivot. For precision, a small contact area is essential; for load-carrying capacity, a high resistance to indentation pressure is required

Design Requirements

FUNCTION Knife edges and pivots
OBJECTIVE Maximise positional precision for a given load
Maximise load capacity for given geometry
CONSTRAINTS Contact stress must not cause damage to either surface
Adequate toughness (for pivots exposed to shock loading)
Low thermal expansion (for high precision pivots)

Table 1


The Model

Consider maximising precision first. The positional accuracy of a pivot or knife edge increases, and its frictional losses decrease, as the area of contact A is made smaller and smaller. To maximise precision, we seek to minimise A, but as we do so, the contact pressure rises. For a given load, F, the peak contact pressure p is given by Hertzian contact theory; it is:

Equation (1)

If both surfaces are to remain elastic, this pressure must not exceed their hardness, H, divided by a safety factor, which we ignore. (It does not affect the outcome of the analysis.) Thus

Equation (2)

Thus the area of contact is minimised, and the precision maximised, by selecting materials with large values of the performance index

Equation (3)

In addition, change of temperature will influence the positional accuracy of a pivot. To minimise thermal distortion we must simultaneously seek materials with small values of the thermal expansion coefficient, a.

Now consider the alternative objective, that of maximising the load that the pivot can support at fixed geometry. Hertzian contact theory gives the maximum pressure in the contact zone of a hemispherical pivot-tip pressed against a flat block by a force F as

Equation (4)

where R is the radius of curvature of the tip of the pivot, E is its Young's modulus and C is a constant close to unity. The constraint remains the same: this pressure must not exceed the hardness H of the pivot or the block. Thus

Equation (5)

The load is maximised, for a given geometry R, by choosing materials with large values of the performance index

Equation (6)

Robustness additionally requires that the pivot or knife-edge can survive rough handling—and for this a degree of toughness (i.e. a high value of KIc) is desirable.

The Selection

The performance indices involve H and E. Figure 2 shows the appropriate chart. For precision you want high M1, and then ceramics are definitely the best choice: Al2O3 (sapphire), silicon carbide and nitride and—above all—diamond. Cermets (composites of tungsten carbide and cobalt) are the only other class of solid which competes with them.

Opens in a new window

Figure 2 Chart of hardness H against modulus E, showing the index M1

For load-bearing capacity, you want high M2 instead; then high-carbon steels, tool steels and high-strength titanium alloys become possibilities, although ceramics and cermets remain the most attractive candidates. This chart is shown in Figure 3.

Opens in a new window


Figure 3 Chart of hardness H against modulus E, showing the index M2

But there is more to it than that. Change of temperature will influence the positional accuracy of a pivot. Precision is maintained by choosing materials with low thermal expansion. Robustness, on the other hand, requires that the pivot or knife-edge survive rough handling—and for this a degree of toughness is desirable. Figure 4 shows a chart of fracture toughness plotted against thermal expansion coefficient. Using this as a second stage, gives the results in Table 2.

Opens in a new window

Figure 4 A chart of fracture toughness, KIC, against thermal expansion coefficient, l, showing the selection stage for robust, precise, pivots


Selection 1: Precision

with H > 104 MPa and a < 4 x 10-6/K

Selection 2: Robustness

with H3/E2 < 25 MPa and KIc > 6 MPa.m1/2

Boron Carbide (hot pressed)
Diamond/Carbide (Laminate)
Sapphire (Single crystal)
Silicon Carbide (hot pressed)
Silicon Carbide (hot pressed) (commercially pure)
Silicon Carbide (reaction bonded)(RF)
Silicon Carbide (sintered)
Silicon Carbide (sintered, beta)(RB)
Silicon Nitride (hot pressed)
Silicon Nitride (hot pressed) (commercially pure)
Silicon Nitride (hot pressed)(5%MgO)
Tungsten Carbide (WC)
Tungsten Carbide-Cobalt (96)
Alumina (99.95)
Diamond/Carbide (Laminate)
Sialons (Si-Al-O-N ceramic)
Silicon Nitride (sintered)(NS)
Titanium Carbide (5.45)(Nickel-bonded)
Titanium Diboride
Tungsten Carbide-Cobalt (78)
Tungsten Carbide-Tantalum Carbide (70)
Tungsten Carbide-Titanium Carbide (85.02)
Zirconia (PSZ) (Cerafine)
Zirconia (Y-TZP)(HIP)
Zirconia (yttria stabilised, transformation toughened)

Table 2 Materials for knife edges and pivots