Why would you lube a keyboard?

The industrial and technological developments our world has seen in the past few centuries are absolutely tremendous. There is a plethora of machines and devices, from automotive vehicles to computer keyboards, that we operate on a daily basis without even thinking about it. In the past 10 years alone, the performance of these machines has increased many folds both in terms of the complexity of the technology and ease of use. Somewhat overlooked due to their intentionally subtle and inconspicuous nature, lubricants have played a vital role in enhancing the efficiency, speed, and power of machines and gadgets.

What are lubricants and what are they used for?

Lubricants cool down the areas of engines and moving parts that get hot during operation. They are able to do that by decreasing the friction between interconnecting parts or interacting surfaces. Lubricants also prevent undesirable premature wearing damages and corrosion. By tending to the mechanical parts and letting them glide smoothly, they improve mechanical efficiencies and increase the lifetime of machines. There are many different lubricants offered on the market grouped by their application purposes, grade, physical state, sources of production and more. Choosing a lubricant that fulfills the necessary functions and doesn’t negatively affect the performance can be a little tricky at times, but it is key to a successful and extended operation of a given machine or device.

For example, let’s consider petroleum-based lubricants. They are extracted from natural crude oil and then refined and distilled. Petroleum lubricants are the best fit for high consumption applications where a big volume of lubricant is needed because of their low initial cost. Synthetic lubricants, on the other hand, are man-made and have been created via a chemical reaction rather than found naturally. They are usually used for more specific applications, such as conditions of extreme temperatures due to their high thermal stability or a continuous operation of the machine since the synthetic lubricants don’t need to be changed as frequently. Among the wide range of synthetic lubricants, fluorinated lubricants stand out on account of their unprecedented chemical inertness and solvent resistance. 

What are fluorinated lubricants and how do they work?

Fluorinated lubricants are a special family of synthetic lubricants that have superior properties, such as thermal endurance, chemical inertness and resistance to oxidation. That allows them to be used in both very sensitive and harsh applications. Fluorinated lubricants are essentially long-chain polymers, i.e. repeating blocks, composed of carbon, oxygen and fluorine. The extremely strong bond between carbon and fluorine is what makes these polymer chains highly inert and very stable. This bond is repeated many times inside the polymer chain, multiplying its strength and shielding the lubricant from any chemical, biological or environmental stressors. Specifically due to this strong carbon-fluorine interaction, fluorinated lubricants can operate under extreme temperatures (-70°C to more than 300°C) as well as in highly reactive and aggressive environments. Another interesting property of fluorinated lubricants is that they show less evaporation losses when compared to conventional lubricants. This allows for longer periods of time in between lubrications or even for-life lubrication in some cases, saving time and money. The real cherry on top is that fluorinated lubricants are also non-flammable and have low toxicity, which makes them safe to handle and use, as well as opens up a range of applications.

The applications of fluorinated lubricants

Fluorinated lubricants can be made in the form of oil or grease. Given the extremely stable and high-performance nature of fluorinated greases and oils, they are found in many applications, ranging from industrial operations, space aircraft engines, and vacuum pumps, to robotics, military and marine transportation vehicles, highspeed cars, food processing and more. Due to their inertness and resistance to oxidation, fluorinated lubricants are usually favored over other types where clean environmental conditions are required, for example in chemical and nuclear plants, food processing and handling units, electronics assembly clean rooms and more. You can even find them being used in medical equipment and pulp and paper production.

When compared with polyalphaolefin, which is another very common synthetic lubricant used in industrial and automotive applications, fluorinated lubricants offer more fire resistance and also biodegradability. Similar to fluorinated lubricants, polyalphaolefin lubricants offer remarkable performance in extremely cold and hot temperatures, but they have a tendency to shrink seals, and dissolving common additives in polyalphaolefins can be a challenge as well. One has to also keep in mind that while polyalphaolefin lubricants are safe to use with nearly all plastics, they may not work with PPE, PP, or PVC. On the other hand, fluorinated lubricants are safe to use with any plastic. The same goes for elastomers - fluorinated lubricants are safe to use with all elastomers and polyalphaolefin lubricants have a few exceptions, such as EPDM and natural rubber. However, while polyalphaolefin lubricants mix with any thickener, fluorinated lubricants are often limited to one thickener – PTFE.

In comparison to petroleum-based or other synthetic lubricants, fluorinated lubricants are the most expensive, but their performance is unmatched in many applications and allows for longer relubrication intervals. 

Using fluorinated lubricants for mechanical keyboard switches

The type of lubricant you use for your mechanical keyboard will affect the speed, sound, response and feel of the keyboard switches forever, so it is important to choose wisely. Fluorinated lubricants are a superior choice when it comes to home appliances and electronic devices, as they are safe, non-toxic, non-flammable, extremely stable, and compatible with all customary plastics and elastomers.

If done right, lubricating switches can help muffle the sound from the housing, stem and spring along with making the switches glide smoother and with less friction. Lubrication can really transform the keyboard and switches especially benefit greatly from applying lubricant as they are constantly being moved and rubbed every time you enter a keystroke. The viscosity is a very important factor to consider when shopping around for a switch lubricant. Generally, switches require thinner lubricants, such as soft greases. On the other hand, stabilizers need a thicker and more viscous lubricant, such as firm greases. If you are thinking of using silicone grease or lithium soap for your switches, you are better off saving it for lubing your stabilizers, as they are both too thick and viscous for the switches. A very popular method is to use a mix of oil and firm grease – it is a time-saver and also allows you to make grease of your preferred texture. 

Kunsulu is a chemist with a 7-year academic career, having written and worked in different labs and research institutes all over Europe. We asked her to write a bit about the fundamentals of lubricants, and why we use them in the mechanical keyboard world.

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