China Shifts from Lithium Thickeners


China’s grease industry continued shifting away from lithium soap thickeners, according to the latest survey from the United States-based National Lubricating Grease Institute, as producers seek alternatives to a chemical that is increasingly being grabbed for electric vehicles.

The survey also shows that producers in China continue to switch to calcium-based thickeners, and to a lesser extent polyurea.

In contrast, use of lithium thickeners in the Japanese market has vacillated the past few years, and polyurea is the main alternative to lithium.

The organization’s survey for 2023, published last week, showed conventional and complex lithium soap thickeners being used in just 47% of grease produced in the nation last year, making it the only major region where lithium use is below 50%.

China is by far the world’s largest grease market, and its combined use of conventional and complex lithium thickeners has fallen from 52% of production in 2022 and 70% in 2020. Over that same four-year period, the portion of products made with calcium thickeners jumped from 19% to 36%. Most of that increase was with anhydrous calcium thickeners, use of which jumped from 14% to 29%.

In Japan lithium thickeners were used in a combined 59% of production last year. That was down from 62% in 2022, but lithium thickeners were also used in 59% of production in 2021 and 61% in 2020.

Use of calcium soaps has remained low in Japan and accounted for just 4% of production in 2023. Instead, the country has leaned much more heavily than any other market on polyurea thickeners, which were used in 31% of product last year, up from 27% in 2022 and 26% in 2020.

NLGI’s survey is considered the most comprehensive measure of grease production in the world, but the organization acknowledges that participation has declined in recent years, eroding its reliability as a gauge of the industry’s size or its statistical validity for comparing year-to-year changes in some regions.

Chuck Coe, president of Grease Technology Solutions, which conducts the survey on NLGI’s behalf, said year-to-year comparisons are still valid for Japan and to a bit lesser degree China.

The full 27-page report of 2023 grease production includes data going back to 2020 and is available to download at the NLGI website. NLGI member companies can obtain a free copy, and nonmembers may purchase the report, which contains data categorized by geographic region, thickener type, base oil type and year.