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MARCH 1981 45

Pressure-Wear Theory for Sliding

Electrical Contacts

Abstract-The concept of wear-dependent contact phenomena is ality. Equation (1) applies either to static (breakaway) or
developed for sliding electrical contacts, where geometric constraints dynamic friction with only small differences in the coefficient.
on wear directly influence contact pressure distribution under the face
Similarly, the wear volume V is found to be proportional to
of a brush. In terms of general contact theory, this pressure dis-
tribution is related to the number of contacting asperities, the true the normal contact force and independent of apparent area,
area of each contact, or the frequency of asperity encounters. The and it increases linearly with the sliding distance S:
concept is proposed as a potential new tool to be used in the
formulation of a descriptive analytical model of the brush interface. V = KFS. (2)
Analytical relationships are developed for friction, wear, and
electrical contact resistance for composite and other multicomponent
brush configurations. This expression may be applied to abrasive wear as well as
adhesive wear, with appropriate values of the proportionality
The electrical contact resistance is composed of a constric-
F OR THE SLIDING electrical contact, analytical models are
tools with which we improve our understanding of such
complex interface phenomena as friction, wear, and electrical
tion component due to the severe concentration of current as
it passesthrough some fraction of the real contact area, and in
serieswith this, a film component due to complete or extensive
resistance. Through the identification of important parameters
coverage>of the real contact area, either by a thin insulating
and their interactions, models p-oint to potential improvements layer of metallic oxide or by an adsorbed surface layer through
in materials, configuration, or operating environment. Effi-
which current may pass by means of the tunnel effect. Each
cient current transfer, high current capacity, long life, and
component of the contact resistance R may be expressed as
reduced electrical noise are the ultimate goals.
Central to interface modeling is the observation that con-
R = CF-k (3)
tact between two solid members occurs at a small number of
surface asperities which are the first to meet and are of ade-
where C and k are constants which differ for the two compo-
quate strength to support the contact force. The resulting
true load-bearing area of contact is, in general, a very small
The above relationships apply quite well for a given set of
fraction of the apparent interface, but it controls the impor-
materials and atmospheric environment as long as the operat-
tant phenonema. Analytical expressions for friction, wear, and
ing regime or descriptive mode of the sliding phenomena does
electrical resistance are developed in comprehensive texts by
not change (e.g., micro-adhesive wear versus severe abrasive
Bowden and Tabor [l] , Holm [2] , and Rabinowicz [3] . More
wear). The constants /J, K, and C (as well as the regimes) are
complex models which relate surface topography, real contact
generally temperature sensitive, but this parameter may often
area, and number of contact points to the resulting mechanical
be controlled by external cooling. The nature of asperity con-
and electrical characteristics are the subject of many technical
tact and the resulting load-bearing area are assumed to be
papers [4] -[8]. The essence of this analytical and empirical
similar in the static and sliding conditions, and this is supported
work is expressed in the most useful relationships which
to some extent by the similar values of static and dynamic
friction coefficients. Thus the static contact resistance rela-
The widely applicable Amontons-Coulomb law of friction
tionship (3) is assumed to apply on the average to sliding
shows the friction force f to be proportional to the normal
electrical contacts, and this is also supported by some experi- a
contact load F and independent of the apparent contact area:
mental investigation [9] , [lo] . Usually, in electrical machines, ’
f=P (1) a spring load is applied to the brush and, with modifications
where /J is the friction coefficient, the constant of proportion- due to holder constraint and inertial effects, this establishes
the contact force. The resulting interface characteristics are
then determined by (l)-(3). In some situations, however,
Manuscript received May 15, 1980; revised October 23, 1980. This
work was supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the geometric constraints on wear rate directly influence the
Department of Defense under Contract N-00014-79-C-01 10 and moni- contact force or more generally the contact pressure under
tored by the Office of Naval Research. This paper was presented at the the brush face or between any sliding members. This phenom-
26th Annual Holrn Conference on Electrical Contacts, Chicago, IL,
September 29-October 1, 1980. enon has been considered for a few mechanical systems, such
The author is with the Westinghouse Research and Development as clutches, as discussed by Rabinowicz [ll] , [12]. The
Center, 1310 Beulah Rd., Pittsburgh, PA 15235. approach will be extended here to show the special signifi-

0148-6411/81/0300-0045$00.75 0 1981 IEEE


cance for sliding contacts where the electrical resistance will Brush

be affected. Also, for composite materials, a new mode will

be postulated for the functioning of lubricant constituents.
Nonuniform Velocity
Homopolar electrical machines with high excitation fields
commonly employ conical slip rings with their surfaces tangent
r ‘1
to the magnetic field lines [13], [14] . This minimizes the L
’ induced axial voltage in the ring and the circulating current
that results at the sliding interface. It is readily seen that
points along the axial width of the brush face have different
sliding velocities and thus have different travel distances which
are proportional to the radius at each point. Thus the manner
in which (2) is to be applied is not immediately clear.
The linear wear rate W at any point within a sliding inter-
face may be determined by writing (2) for an elemental area
Fig. 1. Rotor with brushes at different radial locations.
dA and finding the rate of change with respect to time
1dA = K(pdA)S
dlfdt = KpdSjdt
W=Kpv (4)
where I is the wear depth, p is the contact pressure, and u is
the sliding speed at that point.
To illustrate the effect that may result from geometric
constraint, consider two identical brushes applied to the face
of a rotating disk at different radial positions rr and rZ as
shown in Fig. 1. If the brushes are small in cross section, (4)
may be written for each brush. Noting that

v=ro (5)

where o is the angular velocity, these equations become

Fig. 2. Radial variation of brush contact pressure.
WI = KpIrlo (6)
the brush must follow an inverse linear relationship with radius;
W, = Kp2r2w. (7)
as illustrated in Fig. 2.
In terms of contact theory, this means that either the
If the force on each brush is adjusted to produce the same
number of contacting asperities, the true area of each contact,
linear wear rate, then (6) and (7) may be equated, and elimina-
or the frequency of asperity encounters must be greater at the
tion of common terms yields
inner (lower radius) region of the brush where the sliding
velocity is lower. In either case, this would be expected to
Plrl =P2r2. (8)
produce a lower value of time-averaged electrical contact
resistance at the inner region, and a higher current density
That is, for equal wear rate, the contact pressures must be
would be predicted in this area.
inversely proportional to the radius at which the brush is
The electrical resistance of the two brushes in Fig. 1 may be
located. compared by writing (3) for each and combining these with
If these two brushes were by some means rigidly joined and
(8). For equal area, force may be substituted for pressure in
the assembly held to prevent tilting, they would be forced to
(8) and the ratio of resistances for equal wear rate becomes
wear equally, and the steady-state contact pressure would
follow the relationship (8). This situation is shown in Fig. 2, R 114 = @1/r2)k. (10)
where now a single brush covers a significant radial span, and
the brush holder prevents tilting. In this case (4) and (5) may The innermost brush will have the higher contact force and,
be combined and solved for the contact pressure: therefore, the lower resistance.
If they are electrically joined and body resistance is negligi-
P = U+‘/K~XllO (9) ble, the parallel resistance of the two brush components

Thus the time-averaged

Dressure at anv point
under the face of R =R,R,I(RI +R2) (11)

may be expressed in terms of the applied force. The individual

contact forces are found from (8) (for equal area) and the fact
that their sum is equal to the applied force

F, = F/U + r1/r2) (12)

F, = F/(1 + rz/rl). (13)
If (3) and (11)-(13) are combined, the parallel resistance is
found to be

R= ~. (14)
(1 +r,/r,)-k + (1 +r2/r,)-k

For the particular case of k = 1, the denominator of (14)

reduces to unity, and the resistance is the same as that for a
single contact. For other conventional values of k, between Fig. 3. Effect of rotor eccentricity.
l/3 and unity, the resistance will be less. It is important to
note that if r1 = r2 (both brush segments at the same radius),
(14) reduces to

R =C,Vk/21-k (15)
which is consistent with static contact theory for division into
two components which equally share the load [ 1.51.

Rotor Eccentricity
Equations (10) and (14) are based on a steady-state model
in which the force on each brush selection does not change
with time. IIowever, in practical applications’ there will be
rotor eccentricities which result in localized contact due to a
modification of the brush face contour [16] . The resulting
Fig. 4. Time variation of brush contact force.
contour will be such that, for a full revolution, the linear wear
rate will be equal for all points on the brush face, but the
contact pressure will not be constant with time at’ a given differ from that of (14). Since this assembly has a single con-
point. Fig. 3 shows the rigidly joined version of the two Fig. 1 tact at all times, and a constant force, the resistance will be
brushes, applied to the face of a disk which is not perpendicu- simply
lar to the axis of rotation. For clarity, the two brush segments R = CF-k. (17)
will be assumed to have a small and uniform contact region.
The basic difference between these two models, of uniform
If the brush assembly is adequately constrained, then dur-
contact (14) and eccentric contact shift (17), is the increased
ing each revolution, first one brush face and then the other
number of asperity contacts associated with increased con-
will contact the rotor. Only at two angular positions will
formity of the brush interface to the rotor surface. Bedding or
both brushes simultaneously contact the rotor. The brush
run-m of new brushes is the process of increasing the interface
that is in contact will carry the full value of the applied load,.
conformity through the action of wear. As a result, the number
and in order to satisfy the requirement for equal wear, the
of asperity contacts increases to a limiting uniformly distrib-
time integral of (4) for each brush must be equated. Elimina-
uted population density which is determined by the steady-
tion of common terms, and use of force in place of pressure
state surface roughness of’ the sliding members and influenced
because of equal area; yields
by surface films and debris. Rotor eccentricity, however,
inhibits this process and creates an interface surface which
rltl =r2t2 (16)
behaves more as a static contact with fewer asperity encounters.
where t is the time during each revolution that a brush is in The empirical observation of the constants C and k of (3),
contact. This is illustrated in Fig. 4, and indicates that the which depend on the number of asperity contacts, will there-
lower sliding speed at the inner brush is now compensated by fore depend upon eccentricity as well as run-in.
an increase in contact time rather than an increase in force.
Since, in general, the resistance (3) is not linearly related to Multimaterial Brushes
force, even though the time-averaged value of force is the same A similar phenomenon may be demonstrated if, instead of a
for the ideal and for the eccentric rotor conditions, the effec- varying sliding speed, we have two or more materials with
tive parallel contact resistance for the brush assembly will different wear constants, sliding at the same speed but con-

strained to have the same linear wear rate. For example, Fig. 5
shows a brush that consists of two different materials which / Material 2
are bonded together and run on parallel tracks at the periphery
of a rotating disk. Equation (4) may be written for each
material component as

w, =K,p,u (1%
W, = K2p2v. (19)

Since these wear rates are equal, the pressure must be greater
for the material with the lower wear constant, and component
pressures follow the relationship.

PI = (KdKd~2. (20)
The force balance on the brush may,be written in terms of p,
the averageloading pressure

PA = PlAl + P2A2.
Fig. 5. Contact pressure variation for bonded two-material brush.
If this equation is divided by the total contact area A and Y is
defined as the area fraction, then the force balance becomes
When there are no void regions in the nominal contact area
(21) (Yr + Y2 = I), we may write (28) as
P=PlYl +pzy2.
L = L2 + Yl(Ll -L,),. (29)
Equations (20) and (2 1) may be combined to give the average
pressure under each component The friction force and the electrical contact characteristics are
also influenced by this unequal sharing of contact load. For
Pl = (22) example, if one material component has relatively low wear
YI + WI /K2 Y2 and a low friction coefficient, it will carry more of the load
and the overall friction coefficient will be lower than other-
P2 = (23) wise expected. The friction force under each component is
Y2 + (WdY,
The combined wear rate (Wl = W2) is found by substitution fl =PlPIAl
of (22) into (18), or (23) into (19): fi = ~l2~2A2.
KIPV (24) The apparent friction coefficent will be
Y, + (K,/K,P’,
fi +f2
K,bv c1=
w= F
Y2 + (K,/K,P’l .
= 111plAl
The numerator in (24) or (25) is seen to be the wear rate of ~lA1 +~2A2
the individual material acting alone at the nominal pressure p.
The ratio of the wear constants may be expressed as the ratio ~12~2-42
of these wear rates at the nominal pressure PIA, +~2A2

and with the use of (20), this becomes

K,/Kz = Wr >,/W’z k?. (26)
Therefore, substitution of (26) into either (24) or (25) yields
’ = 1 + (K,/K,W’z/Y,)
w= (27) + 112
YllWl), + Y2IW2)p (30)
1 + (WK, )O’,/Y,)

If we define the brush life as the inverse wear rate (e.g.,h/mm),

then (27) becomes where (Ya/Yr ) = (A2/A1). If the wear constant ratio is unity,
(30) reduces to an area-weighted average of the friction coeffi-
L = Yl(Ll), + Y2@2),. (28) cients.

Electrical resistance will be modified in a manner similar to (38) becomes

that described for friction. A high resistance, low wear-rate
material will increase the parallel contact resistance because it t, = A,K2t2/A2K1. (39)
carries a greater share of the contact force, in addition to the
expected area-weighting. The contact resistance during each of these period will be
It is again necessary to note the difference between uniform
ideal contact and eccentric rotor contact. In uniform sliding R, =CIF-kl
contact, each unit of area would be identical and, therefore,
would have the same number of asperity contacts. With a total R, = C2F-k2
number of identical asperities n, (3) may be written for an
as illustrated in Fig. 6.
individual asperity
In an experiment with a constant current supplied to the
brush, the resistance would be determined on the basis of
(nR) a (F/n)- k.
averagemeasured voltage (with negligible body resistance)
Since n is proportional to the total areaA, the overall resistance
R may be found in terms of the contact pressure ii =E/I

R apek/A = (E,t, +E,t,)/(t, + tz>i

-k Rl R2
OaP (32) +
= 1 + t2/t, 1 + t&2 *
where u = AR is the distributed contact resistance.
For the brush assembly of Fig. 5, we may write Substitution of (39) yields

R, =Clp,-kl/Al (33) R= Rl R2
+ (40)
R2 = C,p,- k2/A2. 1 + (42KllA1Kd 1 + W2/4K,)’

With substitution of (22) into (33), and (23) into (34), these If a constant voltage is supplied, and the current is measured,
component resistances become we find in a similar manner

CR,>p 1 1
R, = (35) l/E= +
Y,[Yl + WI/K,KI-~~ R,(l +A,K,/A,K,) R2U +AIK~/A,KI) *

CR2 >p (41)

R2 = (36)
Y2[Y2 + UWWYII-~~ Composite Brush Material
The nature of the sliding electrical contact is complex and
where (RI),, is defined as the contact resistance that would
not well understood even for monolithic materials. Metal-
exist if the brush were composed completely of the first
graphite mixture brush materials further obscure the phenome-
material, and (R2& is similarly defined for the second material.
non and hamper attempts to formulate an accurate analytical
The parallel resistance of these two components (neglecting
model. Measurements of brush performance are known to be
body resistance) would be
dependent upon the proportions of the material components
R = R,R,/(R, +R,). as well as particle size of the specific materials and the manufac-
turing processesemployed [ 171. However, consideration of the
The contact zone will be localized on an eccentric rotor wear-induced pressure distribution may lead to new concepts
[ 161, but it is not likely that the two components of the brush for prediction of mechanical and electrical performance and,
assembly (Fig. 5) will contact with complete independence. potentially, to the design of improved brush materials.
However, this situation may be analyzed as a limiting case. If The sliding interface of a sintered metal-graphite brush is
the time integral of wear rate (4) is the same for both compo- illustrated in Fig. 7. Since linear wear rate (rate of reduction in
nents, with equal sliding velocities, the requirement is that brush length) must be the same for each component in the
interface, the area fraction of each must be constant on the
average. Also, since the component area multiplied by the
K,p, t, = Kzpztz (38) brush length will be the volume, the averagearea fraction will
be equal to the volume fraction. At any point in time, some of
where t is the time during a revolution that each material com- the metal particles may be smeared under the adjacent graphite
ponent is in contact. In this limiting case, the full load is particles, and some of the graphite lamella may intervene
assumed to be carried by the component in contact, so that between a metal particle and the slip ring. However, since the
the relative magnitudes of contact pressure will be inversely worn volume of each component is fured by the material com-
proportional to their ratio of areas. With this consideration, position, the area fraction at the interface on the averagewill


50 0.168 0.010 0.030 1.19

75 0.378 0.030 0.078 1.56

95 0.794 0.162 0.204 4.07

carried by the metal is only one to sixteen percent of the total,

and the averagegraphite contact pressure increases from 1.2 to
4 times the nominal value. For this illustration, the influence
of varying slip ring film composition has been neglected. It is
interesting to note, however, that the calculated range of metal
Fig. 8. Eccentric rotor effect on two-component brush contact re-
sistance. contact force is similar to that demonstrated in tests of copper
fiber brushes with high current and low contact resistance [20] .
Graphite Particles r Metal Particles Since the graphite carries most of the interface force, even
at very hi& metal content, the friction coefficient will remain
similar to that of the graphite. If the friction coefficient for
graphite is taken as 0.10 and that for copper as 0.33, then for
the wide range of metal cqntent, 17-79 percent, the effective
coefficient calculated from (30) is 0.102 to Oil 37. These analyti-
cal predictions appear reasonable but could be markedly
P!J Pg gltered if the slip ring film were found to play an important
role, or if the temperature at the interface were not controlled.
Fig. 7. Interface pressure distribution for metal-graphite brush.
not be affected by this spreading. As in the case of monolithic 1) In a sliding electrical contact, either nonuniform velocity,
materials, the wear rate for each component will depend upon nonuniform material wear coefficient, or geometrically im-
the transfer film which forms on the slip ring surface [18 3 , posed nonuniform wear (such as that for a pivoted brush) will
[ 191. Due to polishing of the substrate and transfer of material produce a nonuniform contact pressure. The higher pressure
from the brush, this film develops during the initial phase regions of ‘the interface have lower electrical resistance and,
when the wear rate is generally greater than long-term values. therefore, carry an increased current density.
The pressure under the individual particles will differ as 2) The concept of wear-induced contact pressure presents a
indicated by (20) and will be greater for the low wear constant new alternative for the modeling of sintered metal-graphite
graphite than for the metal, as indicated in Fig. 7. The linear brushes. Rather than providing a lubricant to the slip ring
wear rate of the composite would be defined by (27), the surface, the graphite may be considered to control the contact
brush life by (28) or (29), and the apparent friction coeffi- force which is applied to the metal particles. An upper li& of
cient by (30). If the particle size is sufficiently small, rotor acceptable metal particle size may be determined by the need
eccentricity will not be great enough to prevent simultaneous for an adequate graphite area to carry the contact force when
contact of a large number of particles. Therefore, (35)-(37) practical rotor eccentricities cause a localization of @rush
may be used to define the electrjcal resistance. The difficulty contact.
lies in the selection of proper component wear constants for 3) Much further analytical and expemental investigation is
the film which is dependent upon both brush components. required to define the composition arid structure of slip ring
Table I shows the predicted sharing of mechanical load surface ftis, and their influence upon the interface phenomena.
between the metal and graphite components of three coppey- It is important to differentiate transferred brtish material that
graphite brush compositions. The fraction of force carried by is functionally inactive,. merely filling voids in the slip ring
the metal is determined by multiplication of (22) by the com- surface, and film material that supports mechanical load,
ponent area (A Y, ) produces frictional resistance to sliding or provides electrical
conduction pathways.
F,,,/F= 1111+ @&&#‘,/Y,)1 (42)
where the subscripts m and g refer to the metal and graphite, [I] F. P. Bowden and D. Tabor. The Friction and Lubrication of
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respectively. Wear coefficients, based upon operation in a 12) R. Holm and E. Holm. Electric Contacts. Theory and Application,
humidified carbon dioxide atmosphere, were estimated to be 4th ed. New York: Springer. 1967.
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Wiley. 1965.
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