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A Business Case for Biobased Crankcase Oils and Other Biobased Lubricants

January 01, 2014
Ron Buckhalt
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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently designated biobased crankcase oils as a new product category under the federal procurement preference for biobased products, as part of the BioPreferred program (biopreferred.gov). As of June, 2014, Federal agencies and their contractors must give preferential consideration to crankcase oils that are at least 25 percent biobased. The federal market for crankcase oils is huge. Although specific aggregate purchasing data are not routinely collected, in a 2003 report to Congress, the General Accounting Office indicated that three entities, the Department of Defense, the United States Postal Service, and the General Services Administration collectively purchased over 13 million quarts of motor oil annually(1).

The Federal Procurement Preference only adds to the growing market for biobased crankcase oil. A recent lubricant market research study(2) indicated that increasing regulatory support and the drive to reduce dependence on crude oil are expected to bolster biobased lubricant market growth worldwide. In addition, other factors such as the effort to find new uses for agricultural products, the need for crude oil alternatives in developing countries, and the fluctuations in crude oil pricing will all drive growth in biobased crankcase oils over the next decade(3).

There are a number of advantages to biobased crankcase oils. Technically, when compared to mineral oils, biobased oils have excellent lubricity, low evaporation rates, and high viscosity indices(4). Biobased crankcase oils also have the potential to be more environmentally friendly; reducing greenhouse gas emissions(5), aquatic and land toxicity, bioaccumulation, acidification, air pollutants, and problems resulting from spills.

The primary disadvantage of biobased oils is that they lack sufficient oxidative stability in their natural form. Chemical additives and antioxidants are being used to address this problem(6). In addition, in research, such as that being conducted by the USDA's Bio-Oils research unit (part of the Agricultural Research Service), scientists are exploring genetically advanced oil seeds that are naturally stable and do not require additives or antioxidants. With these research advances, costs barriers should soon be minimized(7).

With the many advantages of biobased crankcase oils and the research progress to overcome cost barriers, the U.S. and worldwide markets should move progressively towards biobased lubricants, and they will become an important part of the crankcase oil product mix over the next decade.

The USDA’s BioPreferred program is a partner in the drive to support market development for biobased products, including biobased lubricants, by designating product categories for preferred federal procurement and by issuing voluntary USDA Certified Biobased Product labels. Thus far, the USDA has designated 97 categories of products, including 14 categories that are either lubricants or functional fluids. Through a partnership between the federal government and industry, national goals will be advanced including reducing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, reducing climate change impacts, creating American jobs in rural areas and across the nation, and keeping U.S. agriculture strong.

Future columns will address some of the other lubricants that are part of the BioPreferred program.


  1. General Accounting Office, GAO-03-340: Environmental Protection: Information on the Purchase, Use, and Disposal of Engine Lubricating Oil: Washington D.C.; January 02, 2003.
  2. Technology Trends in Lubricants (Mineral, Synthetic, and Biobased) Market for Turbine Oil, Compressor Oil, Gear Oil, Hydraulic Oil, Bearing Oil, and Heat Transfer Fluid Lubricant Applications - Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast 2012 - 2018: Transparency Market Research; September 20, 2013.
  3. Lou Honary and Erwin Richter; Tribology Series: Biobased Lubricants and Greases: Technology and Products; John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. 2011, Introduction.
  4. European Renewable Resources and Materials Association; Website; Technologies section; Biobased Lubricants page, 2013.
  5. Dustin Mulvaney; Lifecycle Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Biosynthetic Base Oil (BBO) Compared to Poly-Alpha Olefin (PAO) Base Oil; Ecoshift Consulting, May 17, 2013.
  6. Josh Pickle; "The Advantages and Disadvantages of Biodegradable Lubricants," Machinery Lubrication, February, 2012.
  7. "Renewable Chemicals Ride Demand for Natural Products," USA Today, October 29, 2013; Business Section.

Ron Buckhalt is the Manager of the BioPreferred Program at the USDA. His contact information can be found in our member directory.

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