More Biobased Lubes for Federal Buyers

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed another clutch of biobased lubricants to receive preference by all federal agencies when making purchases. Included in its Aug. 17 proposed rules are preferences for hydraulic fluids for stationary equipment, 2-cycle engine oils, greases, fluid-filled transformers and metalworking fluids.

The rulemaking, which also covers 15 non-lubricant product categories such as cleaners and degreasers, foam insulation, biodegradable cutlery, carpets and lipcare products, was authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill, and is designed to promote the use of renewable products from U.S. farmers and ranchers. USDA published the first rule designating six items for preferred procurement in March, including fluids for mobile hydraulics. A 60-day comment period for the current proposal is under way, after which final rules will be published.

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The proposed rules set minimum biobased content required for products to qualify for the procurement preference. For 2-cycle engine oils, the minimum biobased content is 7 percent, for stationary equipment hydraulic fluids, it’s 46 percent, and for fluid-filled transformers, 66 percent.

Five types of lubricating greases were designated to receive the procurement preference. Food-grade greases should have 42 percent biobased content; multipurpose greases 73 percent; rail track grease 30 percent; truck fifth-wheel grease (used on the pivot point for a semi-trailer) 72 percent; and all other greases should have 75 percent biobased content, the rulemaking suggests.

Metalworking fluids should have a 40 percent biobased content, the Department said. If the fluid is to be diluted, such as a water-soluble coolant, the biobased content should be determined before the fluid is diluted.

Before setting these biobased limits, USDA reviewed and tested a number of products in each item category. Often, it found products with higher biobased content than the one USDA is proposing, but the Department said it decided to lowball the required content, to give federal agencies more choices in selecting products to purchase.

Arizona Chemical was among those who offered demonstration fluids for USDA to evaluate in setting its biobased content thresholds. “We participated in the testing by offering a fully formulated 2-cycle engine oil, with biobased content of 68 percent, for their testing,” said Greg Achatz, global marketing manager at the Jacksonville, Fla., pine chemicals company. “We supply the components for this so other lube blenders can make them — our products are high-viscosity esters derived from pine trees — so we’ve been very excited by this program.”

Achatz was surprised that the 2-cycle oil’s proposed biobased content was set so low — just 7 percent — but conceded that at least that’s a start. “The real challenge, of course, is to actually sell something to the government,” he added wryly.

To establish its biobased content recommendations, USDA worked with the University of Northern Iowa’s National Ag-based Lubricant Center in Waverly, Iowa. Lou Honary, professor and director there, conceded that the fledgling biobased procurement program has not borne much fruit — yet. “No, I haven’t seen an impact, but then I wasn’t expecting it yet,” Honary said. “I don’t know how many government purchasers are actually trying to find biobased products now. This program is helpful, it builds awareness, but the federal bureaucracy is very slow.”

More important than government set-asides or procurement preferences, Honary stressed, is boosting the performance aspects of biobased products. He advocates adding basic performance requirements to the USDA program, to help screen out sub-par products. This would nudge government procurement offices — and others — to look more favorably on biobased lubes.

Even without that extra nudge, interest in biobased lubes is building, said Achatz. Sales of biobased ingredients for lubricants in the last year “accelerated like never before,” he said. “It’s still a small blip, but it is growing. It has taken the government to get it going, but I hope the next step will be broader interest in general. With mineral oil prices rising, the gap between biobased and mineral oil products has narrowed greatly, and that’s helped to generate interest, too.”

“There has to be a main driver, and if there is not, customers will not change to a bio-product,” cautioned Richard Pino, sales development manager at base fluid producer Uniqema, in New Castle, Del. “We have a very nice portfolio of products, esters among others, labeled as eco-friendly, biodegradable and renewable, but you can’t change this market in one shot. In Europe we have seen more sales because there are regulatory drivers, but in the United States we haven’t seen any specific growth for any products related to that area. Now with this USDA program, maybe that will begin to change gradually too.”

Federal agencies will have one year from the date of the final rulemaking to implement the biobased preferment in their procurement procedures. USDA said it has identified about 170 products more that it will consider for future designation. Information about the guidelines and the program are available at www.usda.gov/biobased. For information about the Aug. 17 proposed rulemaking, contact Marvin Duncan of the USDA Office of the Chief Economist. E-mail: mduncan@oce.usda.gov

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