What is Grease? - Here's Everything You Need To Know

grease being applied on a bearing

Grease is an often overlooked yet crucial component that ensures the smooth operation and longevity of machinery. In industrial settings, the right lubrication is a matter of efficiency and is pivotal for the safety and durability of equipment. Understanding what grease is and its unique properties is essential for professionals in the manufacturing, automotive, and aerospace industries, among others. This article delves into the composition, varieties, and applications of grease lubricants, shedding light on why it's a staple in industrial maintenance.

What Makes Grease?

At its core, grease is a semi-fluid to solid substance that emerges from the combination of a liquid lubricant and a thickening agent. This amalgamation results in a product that stays in place, providing consistent lubrication to machinery parts, unlike its more fluid counterpart, oil.

The Components of Grease

  • Base Oil (70-90%): This is the primary lubricating element. Most greases utilize mineral oil due to its satisfactory performance across various applications. However, in environments with extreme temperatures, synthetic base oils are preferred for their enhanced stability.
  • Additives (1-10%): These are crucial in enhancing the grease's inherent properties. Common additives include oxidation and rust inhibitors, extreme pressure agents, anti-wear, and friction-reducing compounds. They ensure the grease can withstand demanding industrial conditions.
  • Thickeners (5-20%): Thickeners give grease its distinctive consistency. They are typically metallic soaps like lithium, calcium, or complex agents like polyurea. The thickener acts like a sponge, holding the base oil and additives together, thereby determining the grease's overall performance and suitability for specific applications.
Component Typical Percentage Role in Grease
Base Oil 70-90% Acts as the primary lubricating element. Most commonly used are mineral oils, with synthetic oils employed for extreme temperatures.
Additives 1-10% Enhance the grease's properties. Includes oxidation and rust inhibitors, extreme pressure agents, anti-wear, and friction-reducing compounds.
 Thickeners 5-20% Provide grease with its consistency. Commonly metallic soaps (e.g., lithium, calcium) or complex agents (e.g., polyurea). They act like a sponge holding the base oil and additives.

Each component plays a vital role in defining the grease's characteristics, making it an effective lubricant for a wide range of industrial applications. Understanding these components helps in selecting the right type of grease oil for specific machinery needs.

Different Types of Grease and Their Uses

Grease can be classified based on the type of thickener used. The most common thickeners are metallic soaps, which include lithium, calcium, sodium, and aluminum. Complex thickeners, formed by combining conventional metallic soap with a complexing agent, offer higher dropping points and enhanced load-carrying abilities. Non-soap thickeners like bentonite and silica aerogel are used for high-temperature environments. The base oil, either mineral or synthetic, also plays a crucial role in classifying grease. Mineral oil-based greases are common, while synthetic base oils are used for extreme temperatures due to their better stability.

NLGI (National Lubricating Grease Institute) Grading System

The NLGI grading system is a widely accepted classification that ranks grease lubricants based on its consistency. The grades range from 000, extremely soft and fluid-like, to 6, which is very hard. The NLGI grade is determined by measuring the penetration of a standard cone into the grease.

NLGI Grade Consistency Typical Applications
000 Extremely Fluid Centralized lubrication systems, gearboxes, low-viscosity applications
00 Very Fluid Semi-fluid applications, some enclosed gears, steering systems
0 Fluid Centralized systems, gearboxes, underbody automotive applications
1 Semi-Fluid General-purpose applications in colder temperatures, some electric motors
2 Moderate (Standard) Most common grade; used in a variety of automotive and industrial applications
3 Firm Higher temperature applications, where grease migration is a concern
4 Very Firm Sealed-for-life applications, some industrial and automotive bearings
5 Hard Situations requiring minimal leakage and flow, high-load applications
Very Hard Specialized applications where grease mobility is limited and containment is critical

Applications of Different Grease Types

  • Lithium Grease: Popular for its versatility and good water resistance. Used in automotive and general industrial applications.
  • Calcium Grease: Known for excellent water resistance, making it suitable for marine and agricultural use.
  • Polyurea Grease: Commonly used in electric motor bearings due to its long life and good thermal resistance.
  • Synthetic Greases: Designed for extreme temperature conditions, either very high or very low, and are often used in aerospace and high-temperature industrial applications.

Grease vs Oil: Key Differences and Applications

The debate between using grease vs oil for lubrication in industrial settings hinges on understanding their fundamental differences and specific applications. While both serve the primary purpose of reducing friction between moving parts, their composition, behavior, and suitability vary significantly.

Physical and Functional Differences

  • Consistency and Application: Grease oil has a thicker consistency compared to oil. This thickness allows grease to stay put and maintain a lubricating film over a longer period and under higher pressures. Oil, being more fluid, flows more easily but may require more frequent application.
  • Temperature Resistance: Grease generally handles extreme temperatures better than oil, especially when the correct thickener and base oil are chosen. In contrast, oils are more prone to viscosity changes with temperature fluctuations.
  • Sealing Properties: Grease oil acts as a sealant to minimize leakage and prevent contaminants' entry, a trait not inherent in oils.

Applications in Industrial Machinery

  • Grease Applications: Ideal for machinery that operates intermittently or is in storage for extended periods, as it remains in place, ready to lubricate once the machinery is in motion. It's also favored in machinery that is not easily accessible for frequent lubrication and in components operating under extreme conditions (high temperatures, pressures, shock loads, or slow speed under heavy load).
  • Oil Applications: Best suited for continuous-operation machinery where a thin, steady lubricant layer is needed. Oil's fluidity makes it preferable for systems with complex circulation and cooling requirements.

The choice between grease vs oil in industrial applications depends on various factors, including machinery design, operating conditions, and maintenance practices. Understanding these nuances allows maintenance professionals to make informed decisions, ensuring optimal machinery performance and longevity.

The Role of Grease in Various Industries

Grease lubrication plays a critical role in various industries by ensuring the smooth operation and longevity of machinery. Its unique properties make it suitable for a wide range of applications beyond the typical uses in automotive and manufacturing sectors.

Automotive Industry

Chassis and Wheel Bearings: Grease oil is extensively used for lubricating chassis components and wheel bearings in vehicles. Its ability to withstand heavy loads and resist water contamination makes it ideal for these applications.
Suspension Systems: High-performance greases are used in suspension systems, where they endure varying temperatures and pressures.

Manufacturing Sector

Conveyor Belts and Motor Bearings: Grease is essential in lubricating conveyor belt systems and electric motor bearings, reducing wear and tear and prolonging equipment life.
Heavy Machinery: In heavy manufacturing machinery, grease provides lubrication under high pressure and load, ensuring smooth operation and protection against breakdown.

Aerospace Industry

Aircraft Components: Specialized synthetic greases are used for aircraft components, including bearings, gears, and control systems, where they must perform reliably under extreme temperature variations and pressures.

Marine Industry

Ship Machinery: Marine-grade grease lubricants is used to protect ship machinery from saltwater corrosion and extreme weather conditions. It's crucial for equipment like winches, pulleys, and rudders.

Construction Industry

Heavy Construction Equipment: Grease is vital for lubricating moving parts in construction equipment like bulldozers, cranes, and excavators, especially in outdoor environments where dust and water resistance is necessary.

In each of these industries, grease serves not only as a lubricant but also as a protector against wear, corrosion, and environmental challenges. Its selection and application are based on specific industry needs and environmental conditions, highlighting its versatility and indispensability in the industrial world.

Functional Benefits of Grease Lubrication in Industrial Applications

Grease offers several functional benefits that make it an essential choice for lubrication in various industrial applications. Its unique properties address specific challenges and operational requirements encountered in different industrial settings.

  • Pumpability: Grease's pumpability, or the ease with which it can be moved through a lubrication system, is crucial for ensuring consistent lubrication across complex machinery parts. This property allows grease to be effectively applied in hard-to-reach areas and maintained within systems with minimal leakage.
  • Water Resistance: Grease's resistance to water is particularly important in environments where moisture or direct water exposure is common. This resistance helps maintain its lubricating properties even when exposed to water, preventing rust and corrosion in machinery.
  • Consistency and Stability: The consistency of grease, determined by its thickener and base oil composition, ensures that it stays in place and provides a continuous lubricating film. This stability is vital for machinery that experiences high vibrations or varying operational speeds.
  • Temperature Tolerance: High-temperature tolerance is a key feature of many greases, allowing them to maintain their consistency and lubricating properties in environments with elevated temperatures. Conversely, certain greases are formulated to remain effective at extremely low temperatures, ensuring reliable performance in cold conditions.
  • Sealing Properties: Grease acts as a sealant to prevent the ingress of contaminants such as dust, dirt, and water. This sealing ability extends the life of machinery components by protecting them from harmful elements.
  • Versatility: Grease lubricants is available in a range of formulations to meet the specific requirements of various applications. This versatility allows for targeted lubrication solutions across different industries, from automotive to aerospace and manufacturing.

The functional benefits of grease oil make it an invaluable component in industrial lubrication. Its ability to adapt to different environmental conditions and operational demands ensures the effective and efficient functioning of machinery, ultimately contributing to the longevity and reliability of industrial equipment.


What are the main components that make up grease?

Grease consists of base oil (70-90%), additives (1-10%), and thickeners (5-20%).

In what situations is grease preferred over oil in industrial machinery?

Grease is preferred for intermittent operation, inaccessible lubrication points, extreme conditions, and where sealing out contaminants is important.

Is grease and oil the same thing?

No, grease and oil are not the same, although they share the primary function of lubrication. Their differences lie in their composition, physical state, and application methods. Grease, being semi-solid, is better suited for applications where it's challenging to contain liquid oils or where components cannot be frequently lubricated.

Can different types of grease be mixed in machinery?

Mixing different types of grease is generally not recommended as it can lead to reduced lubrication performance and potential incompatibility issues.

How often should grease be applied in industrial machinery?

The frequency of greasing depends on the machinery type, operating conditions, and the grease's performance characteristics. Regular maintenance schedules should be followed as per manufacturer guidelines.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


Shop Tradesafe Products

Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.