Formulation and testing

The scientific development of bicycle chain lubricant comprises two distinct stages: formulation and testing. Each contains several detailed sub-processes. Muc-Off conducts scientific tests in the laboratory – measuring a lubricant’s efficiency or durability and analysing the results. It's then handed over to multiple independent testing bodies, who run their tests and provide a comparison with our findings, before being tested out on the road by our experienced staff and pro-level sponsored athletes, for the final seal of approval.

Laboratory testing is conducted with our recently purchased and highly-sophisticated tribometers and with our Chain Lube Optimisation Dynamometer (CLOD). Both give us a clear advantage in a category that lacks documented test literature, protocols for repeatable and reproducible testing, and independent test standards.


In this chapter, we’ll describe the value of each to the distinct but closely aligned processes of testing, measurement and analysis. We’ll frame our investigation within the context of the Project Landa lubricant: our fastest ever formula and our first major project following the completion of our joint research project with the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC) and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).


Tribometers are machines for measuring tribological contacts. They provide versatility, control and extremely high resolution. Our decision to invest in two tribometers is among the most significant outcomes of the joint research project.


For Project Landa, Muc-Off’s scientists adapted an industry standard reciprocating ball-on-disc test as a vital component of the screening process. The tribo test, conducted by applying a candidate oil between a fixed metal ball and a metallic disc moving backwards and forwards to generate friction, vastly accelerated this lengthy, but essential process. The use of a standard ball in the screening process allowed for many lube iterations to be tested and the best selected to move forward to the final test developed with NPL.


Every element of the NPL test used in Project Landa tribometer tests is controlled. The fixed ball is replaced by a specially machined sample and the discs are made from a metal of known hardness and surface finish. The contact between the ball and the disc was made at a predetermined pressure. The reciprocating motion of the disc beneath the ball (back and forth to replicate the sliding motion between link pin and roller) was made at a prescribed speed. Each parameter was defined to replicate the speed, load, force and motion likely to occur in the area of the chain generating the most losses.


Measurement is a prelude to analysis. The tribometer generates a graph in real-time (during the test) to show the relationship between normal and frictional force, and its final report is created in a spreadsheet. Dividing the frictional force by the normal load reveals the coefficient of friction: a vital measure at any stage of lubricant development but especially valuable during the screening process. The tribometer’s ability to generate a definitive measure of friction from a host of parameters, to display it in a graph and provide the underlying data in a spreadsheet, makes it an essential tool for comparative testing. As an example, recent testing had four lubricants compared in the Tribolab software culminating in a graph derived from over 28million data points - this just isn't possible within Microsoft Excel.


Our Chain Lube Optimisation Dynamometer (CLOD) retains a place at the heart of our scientific development of formulas for performance or durability. An award-winning, application-specific machine, built by hand to the highest specification, it is the physical manifestation of our commitment to the data-led demands of our most successful and enduring pro team partner, INEOS Grenadiers.

While CLOD cannot match our tribometers from versatility or resolution, it is supremely accurate (proven to 0.005w while running a tension test by the scientists at LGC and NPL) and, by the use of real drivetrain components, replicates the application with perfect fidelity. The dynamometer’s defining measurements are speed and load (the latter defined by chain tension). Other factors that affect test results include the chain, sprockets and chainrings: the condition, number of links and coating (chain) and the number of teeth (chainrings/sprockets).


CLOD has two underlying configurations: absorbing power and recirculating power. In Tension mode the dyno can be described as a ‘recirculating power’ device, ‘locking’ torque into the chain. Placing the chain in tension ensures that the contact pressure captured matches the application. The drive motor turns the chainring, while the sprocket turns freely. The power required to turn the shaft in the drive motor is therefore the same as that dissipated from the chain as friction. This enables precise measurement of frictional power loss. Prior to testing, the dyno is calibrated to establish the number of volts equivalent to a certain amount of Torque. To offer a purely hypothetical example, this might make 10v equivalent to 10Nm. These values are acquired along with RPM, and data is collected at frequencies of 10kHz, or 10,000 data points per second, although an even higher data acquisition frequency can be used for the use in high-speed filming comparisons where the data is ‘synced’ with the video e.g. gear changes.


Like the tribometer, the dyno generates data for analysis as a graph and as raw data. While it generates a graph in real-time (during the test), further graphs can be created from the underlying data contained within the captured data. Specialist software is used for very large data sets, but there are always two critical measurements: Torque and RPM, which are then used to calculate Watts and therefore the power lost to friction.


CLOD is an industry-renowned piece of equipment that has won two awards. It won the Physical Test & Measurement category and the Application of the Year prizes at the National Instruments (NI) Northern European Engineering Impact Awards 2015, making it a valuable tool not only for Muc-Off, but for industry standards across the board. Its super-accurate readings provide Muc-Off with the highest level of testing data available in the field. CLOD was developed with National Instruments – a multi-billion-dollar company based in Austin, Texas. While they usually work with high-profile projects that focus on areas such as Nuclear physics, the opportunity to create a ground-breaking machine such as CLOD was an opportunity not to be missed.


In the formulation of the Project Landa lubricant, dyno testing followed the screening process conducted with the tribometer. So effective was the tribo testing in the identification of suitable base oils that just four formulas were taken forwards for cycles of dyno testing. From these four, one formula soon emerged as able to achieve our target value for performance, expressed as a coefficient of friction.

White light interferometer

Muc-Off uses a Contour white light interferometer to analyse the physical effects of tribo tests. For example, the process of screening potential oils for the Project Landa lubricant concluded with use of the interferometer to measure the wear scars caused to both the ball and disc. By measuring the interaction of light sources, and interpreting the measurement with an algorithm, the interferometer generates a high-resolution, three-dimensional image that reveals the depth of the scar: the physical counterpart to the theoretical coefficient of friction.

Testing, testing

Muc-Off places the highest importance on testing, measurement and analysis. Our board of directors will not sign-off the release of a new product without first evaluating detailed reports generated from exhaustive testing by our R&D team.


Our protocols and procedures have advanced dramatically since the completion of our joint research project with LGC and NPL. While the scientific principles on which our previous testing was based of course remain unaltered, our PhD-qualified staff are now equipped to apply the full depth of their knowledge to develop ever more efficient and durable lubricants.


They are driven by the twin goals of repeatability and reproducibility. Their ultimate aim is to create reliable tests that can be used across the sector; independent standards with which competing products from rival manufacturers can be accurately compared. While the latter remains a long-term ambition, the achievement of repeatable and reproducible test protocols is now within reach.

But while in-house laboratory testing will yield hard evidence or data, nothing compares to real-world application. At Muc-Off, there are a wide range of riders of differing levels of ability, to put each new product through its paces. With our lubricant development, while much of the initial research is done at R&D, on-bike testing has to be carried out in order to make sure that it is working to the real world. A member of our R&D team is an ex Olympic BMX racer; they will regularly cover in excess of 300 miles testing a lubricant variant before results analysis, achieving wattage outputs of 1500-2000 watts.


Location is also key. The R&D centre in Poole, UK is blessed with a variety of surfaces and elevations and the weather can be particularly changeable. As such, our development lubricants are tested in a wide variety of conditions.


Independent testing is an incredibly important aspect of the process, as it provides another level of verification to our results. There is currently no agreed industry standard for testing methodologies, but we have found that combining robust, in-house testing methods on state-of the-art equipment, with independent and real-world testing, we are able to develop the best lubes possible, and be confident in our product claims..