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Biobased Lubricants and Grease: News, Market Trends & Predictions

October 01, 2013
Lou Honary
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Biobased lubricants and greases are making gradual but sure inroads into the mainstream markets. When research on the use of soybean oil as a base for industrial lubricants started at the University of Northern Iowa's National Ag-Based Lubricants Research Center ("UNI-NABL") in 1991, the term Biobased did not exist and most emphasis was on the term biodegradable. Soon, the USDA through various working groups and in collaboration with the UNI-NABL Center shifted the focus to Biobased. The rationale was that the real focus should be on the renewability of products, primarily using the US grown crop-based oils as petroleum substitutes. So, the USDA designated a number of biobased products for federal purchasers based on the commercially available products using their renewable materials content.

The writing of this article coincides with the plan to phase out, after 22 years, the UNI-NABL Center. The University of Northern Iowa is celebrating the accomplishments of the Center culminating in the creation of companies that were spun off to commercialize biobased products and the successful products that are currently on the market. Initially the focus was on studying the properties of vegetable and plant oils like the US grown crops like soybean oils for industrial uses. The NABL staff patented many "firsts" including the first soybean oil based tractor hydraulic fluid, first soybean oil transformer oil, first soybean oil wood preservative and first soybean oil based solid lubricant to name a few. Other products like rail curve grease, truck grease and food grade greases were developed at the Center and then licensed for commercialization. Perhaps the two most noteworthy accomplishments of UNI-NABL are development of a revolutionary process that uses microwaves in the processing of biobased greases instead of the conventional heat transfer oil or high pressure steam; and the introduction of biobased lubricants for retail markets. The first development has helped to improve the end products and bring the price of biobased lubricants to parity with petroleum products; and the second has helped to create exposure and awareness to the general public.

As UNI-NABL’s applied research comes to a close, there are many market trends and opportunities that will continue for the betterment of biobased products. Those include the introduction of several heart healthy soybeans that were originally designed for frying application but show great potential for use in industrial lubes and greases. Those include new high oleic soybean that are currently on the market.. The oils from these soybeans offer high levels of oxidation stability that is useful when manufacturing biobased lubricants. There are also oils from various chemical processing that result in the synthesis of unique base oils with superior oxidation stability and extreme sub zero fluidity.  Examples include estolides, which were originally patented by scientists from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and are now in commercial stages through a US company. These oils can be made from animal fat or vegetable oils and yield consistent oils that are stable in oxidation tests and have pour points down to -40 degrees.

Biobased synthetic esters, available on the market now, are priced higher than vegetable oils, but offer consistency, high stability and pour points of -60 to -70 degrees C.

Others have been pursuing development of base oils through metathesis which promises to deliver high quality base oils independent of the raw materials. While commercial availability is yet unknown, the process has the potential to open a new era in biobased base oil development.

Industrial and non-edible plant oils promise to deliver a renewable source for fuels and lubricants. Camalina, for example, is grown in Montana and New Mexico and can be produced in dry and arid land. Camalina has about 40% oil and can be harvested with the same equipment used to harvest soybeans. Theoretically, camalina can further be genetically modified to work with yet lower moisture levels thus make it suitable for desert-like lands. The Association for Advancement of Industrial Crop reports on a number of oil crops and plants that are naturally oily and grow in various regions of the world. With some enhancement in their seed genetics or through selection, these crops can be exploited to the benefit of those regions of the world most starved for petroleum.

Finally, as the political and economical costs of petroleum continue to climb, so are research activities in renewable sources for fuel and lubricants. One of the more promising areas seems to be the development of algae based oils. US companies are leading the efforts to develop algae based oils that do not rely on photosynthesis and can be produced in industrial reactors.  By selecting algae with the most desired oil type, tailored oils can be produced for specific applications.

Within just two decades, soybean oil lubricants and greases can already be found in most retail stores like Home Depot or Ace Hardware -- an example is a full line of over 40 industrial lubricants and greases. But, the new base oils from genetically enhanced crops, algae, synthesized and metathecized  oils that use the conventional sources of fatty acids promise to deliver engine oils, aviation oils, and oils that will meet the demanding military specifications. 

Dr. Lou Honary is Professor and Director at The University of Northern Iowa’s National Ag-Based Lubricants Center (UNI-NABL). You can find his contact information in our member database.

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