Swan Song for Biolube Center


The University of Northern Iowas National Ag-Based Lubricants Research Center will be phased out after 22 years following the expiration of two key federal grants.

Established in 1991, the Ag-Based Lubricants Center expanded into a national center in 2006. Its stated mission is to provide a national focus for research and technology transfer activities that create and nurture the commercialization of biobased industrial lubricants.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and Department of Transportation were among the federal agencies involved with the center over the years.

One federal grant expired in September, and the other one runs out at the end of this year. As of three years ago, we were doing about $2 million a year – that was our budget, Lou Honary, professor at the university and director of the National Ag-Based Lubricant Center, told Lube Report. Since the sequester and the fact that the research funds – especially for earmark money – was drying out, we were told theres not going to be any money coming our way through the federal government. For smaller institutions like ours, we have to rely on earmark money, which are congressionally mandated funds.

About two years ago the center began to reduce its staff, he noted. Then we thought maybe the state of Iowa or others could provide funding, Honary recalled. The funding is not available.

Honary says he still has much work to do on the last two grants. He will have 90 days to do a report on the grant that ended in September.

He said the grant that ends in December, from the U.S. Department of Transportation, funded analysis and testing of 10 biobased and mineral-based greases for railroads, both in the laboratory using equipment from original equipment manufacturers, and in service. All the data are now being compiled, Honary said. I have written a couple short papers on it, and well do a final report. The Department of Transportation would want to disseminate the information, free of charge.

The legacy of the UNI NABL center is in the commercial products that are on the market, and that are growing, Honary noted. We know we have developed products, as we have over 40 products that are commercialized, he said. I will probably be doing consulting and helping those products grow in the market, in a wider market. Im optimistic that with the new base oils coming up, these biobased lubricants are going to start becoming more mainstream rather than specialized. Examples of new base oils include those produced from genetically advanced crops, algae, synthesized and metathesized oils.

He pointed out the centers staff patented many products based for the first time on soybean oil, including tractor hydraulic fluid, transformer oil, wood preservative and solid lubricant. The center also developed rail curve grease, truck grease and food grade greases that it licensed for commercialization.

Honary is also chairman and co-founder of Environmental Lubricants Manufacturing. ELM was formed in 2000 to commercialize the soybean-based lubricant and grease technology developed at the Ag-Based Lubricants Center. Its largest customers for its grease products included railroads and large trucking firms. ELMs biobased lubricants production facility in Plainfield, Iowa, was destroyed by a fire in March 2007.

ELM is currently operating despite the fire that took place in 2007, he said. They have products that are successful in the market. After the fire, we invented the microwave grease processing activities that certainly have changed the state of biobased grease manufacturing, and ELM is the only company that currently uses microwaves to manufacture biobased greases.

In an October LubesnGreases magazine feature, Biolubes: Hope or Hype?, experts at companies large and small spoke about how despite some growth in biolubes, they continue to be hindered by a variety of factors, such as performance limitations, prices compared to petroleum products, limited supply and lack of global standards.

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