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Entering an important phase for greener, more sustainable lubricants

September 1, 2021

Gone are the days when biobased lubricants were considered niche products and perhaps overlooked because of their pricing, durability and performance.

Today’s formulations are robust, effective, more affordable and likely to see continued gains in terms of market share over the coming years.

This comparatively small but growing segment not only offers excellent environmental credentials but is more than capable of meeting the requirements of complex and demanding applications.

“The early versions of biobased products tended to be those where you had to give something up in terms of performance. That’s no longer the case,” Bill Downey, senior vice president, business development at Novvi, said. “The biggest and most important change in biobased lubricants is that they now have better performance, are more cost effective for top-tier applications and are more widely available,” he added.

Sustainable, non-toxic and biodegradable, this broad range of products can often outperform conventional chemistries and are used for gear oils, compressor oils, hydraulic fluids and metalworking fluids.

Biobased lubricants are typically reserved for industrial, marine and food applications. They can also be used in environmentally sensitive areas. 

Another new area of interest, Downey added, is top-tier engine oils, which could never previously have been biobased. 

“In the past, they just couldn’t do the job; they didn’t have the right oxidation stability, they couldn’t deliver the frictional characteristics that were required, and they didn’t have the low-temperature properties,” Downey said. “Now we believe top-tier engine oils can be part of that biobased offering, with a low carbon footprint as well.”

The electric vehicle market is another important area tipped to be a significant outlet in the coming years, particularly as interest in e-mobility accelerates.

Although there remain concerns about the lack of engine oil in electric vehicles and the effect this may have on the wider lubricants market, there will undoubtedly still be plenty of opportunities. Future vehicle designs will require fluids to cool the batteries, insulate and protect motors, as well as provide traditional lubrication.

Today’s biobased products are proving themselves more than capable of fulfilling these requirements.

In terms of pricing, biobased lubricants may never compete with Group I, II or even Group III base oils, but they are proving competitive in terms of synthetic esters, polyalphaolefins and other synthetic base oils.

“Biobased lubricants are not the novelty product they once were but work every bit as well as other lubes,” said Mark Miller, CEO of Biosynthetic Technologies, a producer of biobased synthetic compounds called estolides, which are made from organic fatty acids found in bio-derived oils.

“We’ve now solved the major problems of conventional biobased base oils,” Miller said. “The two main weaknesses were oxidative and hydrolytic stability, which tend to break down or shorten the life of the oil. These products are now very durable and we’ve got data and testing that shows they’re every bit as good as polyalphaolefins or Group III base oils—and are better than they are in many ways as well.”

He continued, “If you’re a lube manufacturer, it’s now very easy to replace petroleum ingredients with something much more environmentally friendly like vegetable oil, synthetic esters or estolides.”

And momentum is clearly building.

Sustainability has become a key driver for the majority of industry players, climbing to the top of their strategic agendas. Heightened environmental awareness, fueled by high profile initiatives such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change, have certainly helped put biobased products and environmentally acceptable lubricants in the spotlight in recent years. 

“Sustainability has become a much bigger issue than virtually anything else right now,” Miller said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the moment in time where environmentally friendly lubricants are really coming into the light. The fact is companies that have sustainability perspectives, projects and programs are actually more profitable and offer real shareholder value.”

He continued, “Major companies are declaring carbon neutrality and buying offset credits, but they’ve also said that they’re going to start doing it organically by creating more sustainable alternatives internally. We’re seeing a lot of the larger players starting to do this.”

This focus on environmental, social and governance metrics at a corporate and investment level is one of the newer—and primary—drivers that is really starting to resonate with users. 

“Everybody is now looking at their sustainability profile, their carbon footprint, and health and environmental issues,” Miller said, “and I think they’re realizing that biobased lubricants can be a very easy fix and a key part of their plans.” 

This shift in awareness and attitude has been compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has also encouraged companies to take a step back and reassess the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations, their energy usage and the composition of their products.

“Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated interest in businesses making sure their operations’ emissions footprint is lower,” Downey added. “Businesses are getting far more sophisticated and spending much more time thinking about this as a business driver.”

“Low carbon footprints are not a fad or trend that is going to disappear. It’s clear that there’s no turning back. Novvi has seen more growth in the last year than we have in all years prior,” he noted. “I’ve had more conversations with blenders, base oil suppliers and additive suppliers about lifecycle analysis and low carbon footprint than ever before. This trend is definitely here to stay; it is now fundamental to business and offers many new exciting opportunities.”