Greasing Growth in China

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BEIJING – According to the China Grease Associations statistics survey, eight Chinese grease producers reported production capacity in excess of 3,000 metric tons (6.6 million pounds) per year in 2004, and just one reported more than 10,000 tons. But an executive with Sinopec Lubricant Co. Tianjin Branch, the countrys largest grease producer, told the Fuels & Lubes Asia Conference here on March 17 that domestic output will grow significantly in volume, quality and environmental friendliness.

These companies production capacities are low, and the allocation of resources is irrational, Cheng Shutian, vice manager, said through a translator. But expected growth in grease demand by the five largest consuming industries is pushing domestic suppliers to higher volumes, higher quality and more environmental friendliness.

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Just three Chinese producers participated in the latest NLGI global grease production survey, reporting combined 2003 output of 107 thousand tons (about 236 million pounds), a number that may significantly understate the countrys domestic grease production. But even with this limited data, Chen noted important differences in Chinas output, compared to other regions.

Roughly 75 percent of Chinas reported 2003 domestic grease production was lithium soap, compared with 58 percent in Japan and 68 percent in North America. About 20 percent of Chinas output was calcium soap, and just 1 percent was polyurea. Comparable figures for Japan are 12 percent calcium, 22 percent polyurea; for North America, 7 percent calcium and 7 percent polyurea.

China is now the focus of the world, said Cheng, but its economic development is characterized by massive consumption of raw materials, high pollution and low output. There is great potential for improvement.

Cheng identifiedfive major industries that domestic grease producers will focus on: metals, vehicles, rail, bearings and appliances.

Metallurgy, and particularly the steel industry, is seeing many technical breakthroughs to upgrade quality and efficiency, he said, and the harsh environment means high demand on greases. Chinas steel output in 2004 was 288 million tons, he said, and it is predicted to reach 330 million tons in 2005.

Greases for the steel industry must be long-life, high-temperature, good antiwear, anti-penetration, anti-sintering, and with good water resistance.

Grease demand in the automobile industry will continue to surge. In 2004, China produced 5.07 million vehicles, with cars accounting for 46 percent. Sales of heavy-duty trucks shot up 45 percent from 2003 to 2004, and bus demand is growing similarly. Crucial automotive components such as constant velocity universal joints require high quality anti-sintering, antiwear, long-life and low friction greases.

The operational length of Chinas railways now totals 72,000 kilometers, and it will reach 100,000by 2020, according to the China Railway Bureau, said Chen. While more precise components will need less grease, he said, long-life and high-temperature greases are required to lengthen the maintenance period.

China is now the fourth largest bearing manufacturer, after Japan, the United States and Germany. Grease producers are facing stricter requirements for low-vibration, low-noise greases.

The home appliance industry in China faces huge cost pressures, and that pressure is passed along to grease suppliers. But new grease requirements emphasize long life, cleanliness and biodegradability.

The future trend, Cheng concluded, is clearly for higher quality base stocks, thickeners and additives. Cheng called for more research in grease formulation, and a greater focus on environmental protection.

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