20 Minutes With Ernie Henderson

Rachel Fowler, Managing Editor | TLT 20 Minutes January 2018

The president of K&E Petroleum Consulting speculates on how low engine oil viscosity can go.

Dr. H. Ernest Henderson received a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, in 1977, after which he spent nearly 20 years with Imperial Oil and Exxon in research, marketing, logistics and technical services activities, both domestically and internationally.

In 1997 Henderson joined Petro-Canada as manager for its Group III research and technical development and later was research director at Syntroleum Corp. for its Fischer-Tropsch GTL upgrading programs. During his 40-year career, Henderson also served as technical manager for YUBASE Group III base stocks, fluid technology manager for CITGO and director of technology for Lubrication Technologies. 

In 2011 Henderson re-launched K&E Petroleum Consulting, LLC. His broad range of base oil expertise includes Group I, II, III, IV (PAO) and re-refined and their application with finished lubricants. His company operates on a national and international basis, specializing in base stock management, strategic planning, new product and process development, supply chain management, formulation cost control, raw materials sourcing, patent litigation and training.

Henderson is a Fellow of both STLE and the Chemical Institute of Canada, a member of SAE and participant in API, AFPM, BLM, ASTM, SAE, STLE, ICIS and ILMA activities. His involvement with STLE spans 35 years and includes working with seven local sections, including chairman of the Vancouver, Toronto, Sarnia and Oklahoma chapters. He also served as STLE’s Eastern Canada regional vice president.

Dr. Ernie Henderson

TLT: During the past 50 years, engine oil viscosity has steadily declined. Do you think SAE 0W-8 and 0W-16 oils will become relevant in the next five to 10 years?
Henderson: During the past 30 years, the automotive industry, and in particular the passenger car engine oil (PCEO) segment, has undergone continued and significant change. The drive has been to meet the performance challenges associated with increased fuel economy under both fresh and used conditions, reduced emissions and extended durability. To meet these technical challenges, many automotive engine oils are now formulated to the lowest SAE viscosity grades in order to maximize fuel-economy benefits.

Change takes time and can be heavily influenced by the way in which the product is brought into the marketplace. The changes within the North American PCEO market are shown in Figure 1 and Table 1 and reflect how long it can take for change to occur.

Figure 1. Changes within the North American PCEO market over the years.

© Can Stock Photo / Naypong

The growth of low-viscosity engine oils like SAE 5W-20/30 and now SAE 0W-20/30 has taken time. Oils were originally not available in bulk quantities at quick-lube oil change shops or available in considerable quantities through service stations and mass merchants. This has since changed and led to the current demand where nearly 70% of PCEOs are now considered to be low viscosity.

This trend will continue to impact the growth of the newest viscosity grades including SAE 0W-16 and SAE 5W-16. Growth will be influenced by (1.) availability in the marketplace, (2.) the availability of new engines that can properly operate with the lower-viscosity products and (3.) backward compatibility where the lower-viscosity grades can be used in engines that have essentially been designed for higher-viscosity products. Given these challenges, I would not anticipate significant growth of these newer grades (i.e., <15% share) during the next five years, though growth 10 years out would be expected.

TLT: What do you think is the lowest feasible viscosity grade for passenger cars before volatility and cylinder wear prevent any further reduction?
Henderson: The industry has seen the recent introduction of the SAE 0W-16 grade, and efforts are underway to develop even lower grades such as SAE 0W-12, SAE 0W-8 and lower. The technical challenges will be to balance viscosity and engine wear and, at the same time, balance viscosity with engine volatility.

Engine wear can be addressed through the use of additive technology, and as oils become thinner the role of additives will continue to increase. This will undoubtedly lead to the need for advanced additive technology that are surface active and can offset the use of thinner engine oils.

At the same time, thinner oils negatively impact engine volatility. This challenge has been met to date through the use of base oils with very high viscosity index (VI) properties. However, we are reaching the VI limit for conventional base oils as classified by API as Group III. This would indicate the need for new and advanced base oils to complement the additive chemistries to address the viscosity-volatility challenge.

However, some in the industry have questioned the volatility standards that are part of the current engine oil design. The volatility requirements for North American engine oils have not changed since ILSAC GF-3 and API SL were introduced in the year 2000. The exception would be General Motors where a lower Noack volatility of 13 wt% (versus 15 wt%) has been in place since the dexos performance standard was introduced in 2010. With ILSAC GF-6 on the horizon with no change to volatility, the industry will have experienced two decades where volatility limits have not changed. 

The question now is whether the current Noack limit is the ideal performance for today’s and tomorrow’s tighter engines. Perhaps a relaxation of volatility will allow the pursuit of lower-viscosity engine oils to further capture energy efficiencies. This will be an interesting technological trend as engine design and engine lubrication move into the next decades. 

TLT: Do you foresee a day where water-based engine oils will be possible?
Henderson: I see engine oils in the near future at least to remain based on carbon, be it petroleum, natural gas or biobased. That said, new technologies are always under development, and the thought of a water-based engine oil is intriguing. My immediate concern is the environmental impact on our water systems and ensuring that we address the need for clean water for personal use before we consider commercial applications.

TLT: Do you foresee a day where surface conditioning will allow an engine to run oil free?
Henderson: I would expect to see an “oil free” crankcase engine before I would see a water-based alternative. New engine designs and component materials are continuously under review. Many OEMs are now offering plans toward the increased use of electric vehicles that would eliminate the need for conventional crankcase oils. General Motors, for example, has indicated that the drive toward a “zero-emissions” future will require the combination of battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell technologies. However, this is still in the design and development phase and will not have a significant impact on the North American automotive industry until 2030 and beyond.

That said, is it possible? When you look at all of the changes and advancements that have occurred in the past 40 years since I entered the petroleum industry as a research scientist, the possibilities remain endless, and I hope to be able to see some of these new advancements in my lifetime.

You can reach Dr. Ernie Henderson at kepetroleumconsult@yahoo.com.