Motor oil is a lubricant used in internal combustion engines. These include motor or road vehicles such as cars and motorcycles, heavier vehicles such as buses and commercial vehicles, non-road vehicles such as go-karts, snowmobiles, boats (fixed engine installations and outboards), lawn mowers, large agricultural and construction equipment, trains and aircraft, and static engines such as electrical generators. In engines, there are parts which move very closely against each other causing friction which wastes otherwise useful power by converting the energy to heat. Contact between moving surfaces also wears away those parts, which could lead to lower efficiency and degradation of the motor. This increases fuel consumption and decreases power output and can, in extreme cases, lead to total engine failure.
Lubricating oil creates a separating film between surfaces of adjacent moving parts to minimize direct contact between them, decreasing friction, wear, and production of excessive heat, thus protecting the engine. Motor oil being a good conductor of heat, is brought into contact with a hot surface, thereby absorbing some of the heat from said surface so the oil can then transfer the heat elsewhere, typically to the air or a heat sink of some variety.
In petrol (gasoline) engines, the top piston ring can expose the motor oil to temperatures of 320 °F (160 °C). In diesel engines the top ring can expose the oil to temperatures over 600 °F (315 °C). Motor oils with higher viscosity indices thin less at these higher temperatures.
Coating metal parts with oil also keeps them from being exposed to oxygen, inhibiting oxidation at elevated operating temperatures preventing rust or corrosion. Corrosion inhibitors may also be added to the motor oil. Many motor oils also have detergents and dispersants added to help keep the engine clean and minimize oil sludge build-up.
Rubbing of metal engine parts inevitably produces some microscopic metallic particles from the wearing of the surfaces. Such particles could circulate in the oil and grind against the moving parts, causing erosion and wear. Because particles inevitably build up in the oil, it is typically circulated through an oil filter to remove harmful particles. An oil pump, a vane or gear pump powered by the vehicle engine, pumps the oil throughout the engine, including the oil filter. Oil filters can be a full flow or bypass type.
In the crankcase of a vehicle engine, motor oil lubricates rotating or sliding surfaces between the crankshaft journal bearings (main bearings and big-end bearings), and rods connecting the pistons to the crankshaft. The oil collects in an oil pan, or sump, at the bottom of the crankcase. In some small engines such as lawn mower engines, dippers on the bottoms of connecting rods dip into the oil at the bottom and splash it around the crankcase as needed to lubricate parts inside. In modern vehicle engines, the oil pump takes oil from the oil pan and sends it through the oil filter into oil galleries, from which the oil lubricates the main bearings holding the crankshaft up at the main journals and camshaft bearings operating the valves.
In typical modern vehicles, oil pressure-fed from the oil galleries to the main bearings enters holes in the main journals of the crankshaft. From these holes in the main journals, the oil moves through passageways inside the crankshaft to exit holes in the rod journals to lubricate the rod bearings and connecting rods. Some simpler designs relied on these rapidly moving parts to splash and lubricate the contacting surfaces between the piston rings and interior surfaces of the cylinders. However, in modern designs, there are also passageways through the rods which carry oil from the rod bearings to the rod-piston connections and lubricate the contacting surfaces between the piston rings and interior surfaces of the cylinders. This oil film also serves as a seal between the piston rings and cylinder walls to separate the combustion chamber in the cylinder head from the crankcase. The oil then drips back down into the oil pan