North America

Lube Industry Mobilizes Against Pandemic


With the coronavirus outbreak forcing the global economy into recession, times are tough for lubricants businesses. Demand is taking a hit but there may be a way for blenders to stay in the game and help stem the spread of the disease by making disinfectants. Boris Kamchev comes clean with the story.

Base oil refineries, finished lubricant plants and additive manufacturers around the world are struggling to maintain operations, as states of emergency are prolonged in an effort to contain the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus Covid-19.

The outbreak was first reported in the city of Wuhan in China last December. It has since swept through almost every country on the planet, infecting hundreds of thousands of people and wreaking havoc the world economy. Now classified as a pandemic, Covid-19 has disrupted everyday life and almost every economic sector. Sports and entertainment events, transport and retailers have been shut down and millions of people have been furloughed or are out of work.

Biological Wrecking Ball

In the past few months, the outbreak has been particularly destructive in countries such as Italy, Spain and the United States, with national contagions numbering several hundred thousand people and deaths in the tens of thousands.

While much of the economy has been shuttered, some activities remain operational. These include refineries and chemical plants in the Europe, Middle East and Africa, which continue to function. Even so, strict stay-at-home and social distancing measures enforced by many authorities across the EMEA region and beyond have kept office staff working remotely and left skeleton crews on site.

In addition to physical isolation to slow the disease progression, health practitioners strongly advise people wash their hands with soap and water and use a hand sanitizer regularly. Rapidly dwindling stocks of popular hand sanitizers sold over the counter typically contain a combination of ethyl and isopropyl alcohols, carbomer, tocopheryl acetate, glycerin and propylene glycol. Alcohol kills the virus and leaves surfaces clean.

Polish Performance

The lubricants divisions of several national oil companies are helping fight the virus by dedicating research and production facilities to formulating and producing hand sanitizers to meet shortfalls.

Poland’s state-run oil company PKN Orlen Oil reported in March that it had repurposed a blending plant in Jedlicze to make hand sanitizers. In the initial phase, the company produced 1 million liters of sanitizer, which was distributed through the company’s network of fuel retail stations across Poland to reach the general population. Some of the liquid was sent to the country’s Material Reserves Agency, which given to various institutions including schools and hospitals.

At the time of publication, Poland had around 6,674 confirmed infection cases and 232 registered deaths, according a real time virus tracker.

“Orlen is actively involved in the … fight against coronavirus in the country. Two lines for the production of hand disinfection liquid have been launched at the Jedlicze plant,” the company said in a recent news release. By the end of March, the company had ramped up to 250,000 liters per day, according to Danial Obajtek, PKN Orlen Oil’s CEO, and pledged to churn out an additional 4.5 million liters in April.

Orlen also donated 7 million protective masks for medical personnel and members of the public and offered lowered fuel prices at its gasoline stations for essential workers such.

“We have allocated an additional PLN 6 million [€1.3 million] to fight the coronavirus by purchasing masks and additional disinfectants, we are also systematically lowering the fuel prices to encourage people who need to travel,’’ Obajtek said.

PKN Orlen’s actions were officially recognized by Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who visited the blending plant in March.

“Thank you very much for this effort and contribution. Orlen Oil proves that Polish business accepted great responsibility in the fight against this epidemic,” Duda said during his visit.

Headquartered in Krakow, Orlen Oil operates blending plants in the Polish cities of Plock, Trzebinia and Jedlicze. The company also produces 83,000 metric tons per year of API Group I base oil in its refinery in Jedlicze and 162,000 t/y at Plock, according to data compiled in the Lubes’n’Greases Global Base Stock Guide.

Spanish Through

Elsewhere in Europe, the effects of the pandemic have been far worse. Spain has been hit much harder than Poland, and in mid-April there were more than 135,000 confirmed infections and 13,055 deaths since patient zero was identified on the island of Tenerife on Jan. 31.

Repsol is doing its part with the production of a hydro-alcoholic gel hand sanitizer, which it has donated to healthcare personnel at hospitals overwhelmed by the massive influx of Covid-19 patients.

The company’s technology lab team devised the formulation, but usually works on lubricants in an €80 million research and development complex of 20 specialized labs that look into bioenergy, emissions, advanced mobility, new materials and geophysics.

Repsol is now producing 3,000 liters per week of sanitizing gel, which will be distributed by the Ministry of Health, according to a company post on Twitter at the end of March. The disinfectant is being produced following recommendations from the World Health Organization and there are plans to increase the initial production volumes in the coming weeks, Repsol said. The company has also supplied equipment for production of Covid-19 tests kits.

Repsol’s refineries in Cartagena and Puertolanno produce 130,000 t/y and 80,000 t/y of Group I oil, respectively. In a 50-50 joint venture with Korean oil company SK Lubricants, in Cartagena it also operates a 186,000 t/y Group II and 450,000 t/y Group III base oil production.

In April, Swedish specialty chemicals company Perstorp announced it had given over part of its production plant in the south of the country to making hand sanitizer and surface disinfectant. At more than 2 million liters per month, capacity should exceed the Swedish healthcare sector’s disinfectant shortage and will be sold at cost price.

At the time of writing, the country had 10,483 confirmed infection cases and 899 deaths. Its controversial approach to containing the outbreak has led to a high fatality rate of 7.68 percent.

Over the Atlantic

Sanitation product manufacturers in the United States – where there have been more cases and deaths than anywhere else in the world so far – and neighboring Canada are facing shortages of raw materials used in hand sanitizer and disinfectant production. The situation is exacerbated by deliveries of ingredients slowing to a grinding halt from China, according to some major companies.

While the pandemic rages, North American lubricant manufacturers are stepping in to meet the need for these types of products. RPP, Products Inc., an automotive fluid company based in California, pivoted lubricant production to make 76,000 liters per day of FDA-approved sanitizer it calls Premier Pura and packaged in auto lube bottles.

North of the border, the Canadian government asked five companies, including Irving Oil Ltd, to help with its response to Covid-19. Irving said it had retrofitted its lubricant blending facility in Saint John, a city on the east coast of the country, to produce hand sanitizers and bump up supplies.

“In line with Health Canada [the country’s Ministry of Health] standards, Irving hand sanitizer is a quality, safe and effective product that we hope will help in the fight against Covid-19,” the company said in a statement dated April 1. No fooling.

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