Researchers Make Base Oils from Non-food Plants


Researchers Make Base Oils from Non-food Plants
Storage of wooden fuel. Researchers at a university lab say they've discovered a way to make renewable base oils for lubricants out of materials like wood and switchgrass. © nostal6ie / Shutterstock

Researchers at a University of Delaware-partnered lab say they have discovered a way to create lubricant base oils from non-food biomass and fatty acids. The team, most of whom are affiliated with the schools Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation, also claimed the new product could minimize the use of additives due to its customizable properties.

In a Feb. 1 article in the academic journal Science Advances, the nine-person team detailed their strategy to make base oils by synthesizing fatty acids and fluids derived from materials such as wood, switchgrass and other organic waste.

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They likened the product to polyalphaolefin and said that by varying the catalyst material that they use they are able to adjust the performance properties of the fluid in ways that reduce the need for chemical additives.

Demand for plant-based base stocks is growing in the lubricants industry, but to date the raw materials come mostly from crops such as rapeseed, soybeans and palm. Suppliers pitch these oils as renewable and more friendly to the environment than petroleum-based lubricants, but some critics complain that use of them diverts resources from food production, thereby driving up food prices.

One industry insider said efforts to make base stocks from non-food plant sources are ongoing but that the task is a tall one. Tyler Housel, head of the Lexolube division at Zschimmer and Schwarz, said biomass, like petroleum, is a cheap feedstock. The question is how much chemical and physical work must be done to refine the feedstock into a useful product.

The incumbent [petroleum] technology also has well known performance characteristics as well as an additive industry that has dedicated years to finding ways to improve the performance further, Housel explained. Another advantage is that machinery has been built to the specifications of the existing lubricants.

On the other hand, he continued, constructing a factory to produce new types of products on a commercial scale could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. This is difficult to justify without a clear market advantage and commitment to change an industry – a commitment shared by customers, suppliers, equipment manufacturers, regulators, etc. The only companies with the capital to invest on that scale are usually already heavily invested in petroleum technology so they would be spending to obsolete their existing business. This is not necessarily a bad investment but certainly a risky proposition.

An international patent application has been filed by the CCEI researchers to secure intellectual property rights for their methods.

The Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation is a research center led by the University of Delaware and comprised of 10 academic institutions and two national research labs. Researchers at the center work to develop catalytic technologies to convert biomass into chemicals, fuels and advanced materials.

The research article may be viewed online at the Science Advances website.