China Industry Wants Domestic Viscosity Modifiers


China Industry Wants Domestic Viscosity Modifiers
Assembly plant workers assemble an engine at a Geely automobile manufacturing plant in Linhai, Zhejiang Province, China. © Jenson

SHANGHAI – In step with central government goals for a wide range of sectors, China’s lubricant industry is in a hurry to develop domestic replacements for imported raw materials, including chemical additives.

At an industry conference here last week, discussion focused on the need for higher quality viscosity modifiers.

“Self-reliance is what the industry is seeking in the next couple of years,” An Wenjie, deputy director of the additives research arm at PetroChina’s lubricant research and development center in Lanzhou, Gansu province, said at the China Inter Lubric summit on June 29. “We must have absolute control of our supply chain.”

An cited viscosity index improver polymethacrylates as an example.  Polymethacrylates made in China usually compete with each other in the low quality segment because foreign companies dominate the high quality, high-performance part of that market.

“The market demands more than dozens of PMA varieties, but Chinese suppliers can only provide less than 10 of them,” An said, adding that in 2022 Chinese sources supplied about 20,000 metric tons of polymethacrylates, compared with 30,000 tons from foreign companies such as Evonik, Lubrizol and Sanyo.

“The goal is to invest in R&D to develop high value added PMAs to compete against foreign suppliers,” he said.

Some of the key research areas, he said, include polymer structure design and esterification. The former could be used to develop molecules with excellent low-temperature performance, while the latter could achieve high yield of viscosity modifiers that improve fuel economy.

China is not a big consumer of polymethacrylates, instead leaning heavily on more affordable, easy-to-produce olefin copolymers. According to PetroChina, polymethacrylates only account for 10% of all viscosity index improvers used in China, compared with 86% for olefin copolymers. The global split is 27% to 64%, respectively.

The Chinese market also differs from global trends insofar that China does not use polymethacrylates primarily in premium lubricants such as low-viscosity engine oils.

“PMAs are more likely to be used in blending industrial lubes in China, and I see plenty of opportunities here as engine oils are facing mounting pressure from the rapid sales growth of electric vehicles,” An said, adding that PetroChina’s Kunlun branded hydraulic fluids, which use PetroChina’s proprietary polymethacrylates, have been used for factory fills in some major Chinese industrial equipment manufacturers, including Sany Group and Xuzhou Construction Machinery.

An’s comments about replacing imported high quality imports with domestic equivalents were echoed by Guan Fei, marketing manager at Richful, a Xinxiang, Henan province-based lubricant additive supplier that aims to take on foreign competitors like Lubrizol and Afton Chemical.

Last year, Guan said, Richful embarked on a program to invest tens of millions of Chinese yuan (millions of United States dollars) in research and development of additives needed to meet the American Petroleum Institute’s newest passenger car engine oil specification, API SP. SP’s uptake in China has been slow – so far, only 8% of demand volume meets the standard, compared to about 60% for API SN, according to Richful.

“But we see the SP standard will be the mainstream eventually, and we want to get ready for it,” Guan said.

So far, such additives are usually supplied by foreign suppliers, but Richful is developing an additive package that it intends will be “a highly competitive product in the market,” he said.