What is Oil Viscosity?

Oil viscosity is the internal friction within an oil that resists its flow. It measures the oil’s resistance to flow and is one of the most important factors in lubricants. Viscosity is also defined as the ratio of shear stress (pressure) to shear rate (flow rate).

Understanding Oil Viscosity

Imagine walking through a swimming pool filled with water. While walking through the pool, your body experiences some resistance from the water. Now imagine walking through the same swimming pool, filled with molasses this time!

It takes someone much longer to wade through a molasses-filled pool than one filled with water. In this case, the molasses is more viscous than the water. Thus, it has a higher viscosity than water.


You can also apply this to using a straw for drinking water from a glass. Pulling the liquid from the cup will be easy using a big straw. However, getting the same liquid to the person using the straw would take longer if a thinner straw were used.

Engine Oil Analogy

We can draw this analogy to car engines over the last 30-40 years. These engines had larger clearances for the oil to flow throughout the engine. As such, most of these engines used a 50-weight (or straight 50) oil.

As the technology evolved, the size of the engines got smaller. The clearances also got smaller, and the engine oil was now required to flow faster, control the transfer of heat and contaminants and keep the engine lubricated.

A straight 50 oil could not pass through the smaller straw at the speed it should. This would be equivalent to the user using a smaller straw for drinking molasses. It could take a while!

However, if a lighter weight (or less viscous) engine oil was used (such as a 0w20 or 10w30), then this is like someone trying to drink water (0w20) with a smaller straw.

It will flow much faster than molasses (straight 50) with the same straw! The lighter-weight oil would also transfer heat and flow much faster than the heavier-weight (more viscous) oil.


Future Developments and Research in Oil Viscosity

As explained at the beginning of this article, the changes in technology (such as smaller engines) will demand more from lubricants, especially in viscosity. Thirty years ago, a 0w16 engine oil was unfathomable, but today, it is being integrated into our newer model vehicles.

Some of the concepts which will continue in the future can include:

  • Reducing viscosity – as seen in the examples above, with most pieces of equipment getting smaller, the need for lighter weight (lower viscosity) oils will continue as OEMs constantly evolve and push the boundaries of their equipment.
  • Measuring viscosity – traditionally, viscometers have always been used where the difference in the height of the liquid at particular temperatures (or under certain conditions) is measured. Given the advancements in technology, this may be subject to change very shortly into a more reliable and even more accurate method.
  • Viscosity-dependent parameters – temperature and pressure have the most significant impacts on the oil’s viscosity. However, some of these challenges can be overcome with the advent of viscosity index improvers. With enhancements in the formulation of viscosity index improvers, one can expect oils of varying viscosities to be used in parameters they could not have used in the past.
  • Alternative oils – more sustainable options are constantly being explored. Whether this lies in using plant-based oils or other alternative bio-based oils, these may introduce new ways or conditions under which different viscosities can exist.

Overall, viscosity is one of the most important characteristics of a lubricant. It can easily influence the impact of the oil on the internal surfaces of the equipment and its overall energy efficiency.

It is important to remember that oil viscosity should be determined by the application in which it is being used. Parameters such as temperature, pressure, and shear rate should all be considered when selecting the lubricant’s viscosity.


Want to read the entire article? Find it here in the Precision Lubrication Magazine!