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Gost in the Machine

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Gost in the Machine

Standards are essential to keep the wheels of the world turning. Where lubrication is concerned, they need to evolve to match advances in technology. In Russia, some grease manufacturers are still making products to obsolete Soviet specifications called Gost. Boris Kamchev presents a profile of a modern Russian grease maker that has its roots in the old days.

The remnants of communist Russia have lingered on well after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Some are tangible, like the famous Moscow underground, while others are hidden in railway cars and under the hoods of trucks. They are Gost, an abbreviation of the Russian words for State Union Standard, and are a collection of 20,000 technical specifications first developed during the Soviet era that lay out the parameters for everything from stewed beef to lubricating greases.

After the end of the USSR, Gost persisted as a regional standard system. Today, it is maintained by the Euro-Asian Council for Standardization, Metrology and Certification, an intergovernmental organization of the Commonwealth of Independent States, formed of countries that once comprised the Soviet Union. There is an ongoing process of revision to bring these specifications in harmony with international standards, with allowances made for Russia-specific details. But some are still obsolete and swathes of Russias industrial sector continues to labor under them.

As to why some machinery, spare parts and consumables are still produced to conform to specifications that are years out of date is hotly debated in Russia. Without them, Russias massive industrial machine would grind to a halt, some contend.

The upshot is that the countrys grease market is awash with products that would be at home in a museum. Rather than being niche leftovers from a bygone era, they are formulated and produced in great numbers. As such, they comprise a large portion of the market.

Another characteristic of the market is that imports of foreign greases are on the rise and domestic lubricant makers are trying hard to displace them by offering products of equal quality.

Business End

Intesmo, the largest grease maker in the country, is one of those companies facing stiff competition from foreign imports. Again in Soviet style, its name is an abbreviation of the Russian for Innovative Greases Technologies and is a joint venture between Russian energy major Lukoil and the state rail monopoly Russian Railways. The JV operates a 30,000 metric tons per year grease plant in Volgograd, which also houses a research and development center that was opened in 2016. The Volgograd R&D center formulates new types of greases, carries out lab and bench testing and advises on product use through technical support. Since it was established three years ago, the center has devised 200 methods for testing lubricants and greases and opened another research facility for development of industrial oils and specialty products, Nikolay Solovyev, head of the companys research and development, said at RPIs Global Grease conference held in Moscow in late 2019.

Annual grease demand in Russia is around 40,000 tons, and at least 50 percent of Intesmos production goes to lubricate Russias industrial sector. Some is exported to neighboring countries, such as Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, which all have industries that use increasing volumes of high-quality greases.

The company also offers so-called low-end greases, but low end does not always mean low quality. Rather, it describes a product made under these obsolete Gost standards and used in machinery that was commissioned decades ago and has seen better days. These greases continue to dominate the market, Solovyev said.

Intesmos offerings include its Flex brand, a range of 51 grease types, Solovyev told the conference. Flex greases are primarily thickened with lithium soaps.

The company produces 125 types of grease products, up from 107 in 2017 and 78 in 2016. This reflects the general sentiment in the production of Russian petrochemicals – aggressive expansion to displace imports and offer products comparable to their foreign counterparts.

In 2018, we developed 33 types of products meant for the countrys railway sector, another 33 developed [for] food grade lubricants, and just eight types are greases produced under Gost standard, Solovyev said.

The company produces 125 types of grease products, up from 107 in 2017 and 78 in 2016. This reflects the general sentiment in the production of Russian petrochemicals – aggressive expansion to displace imports and offer products comparable to their foreign counterparts.

Intesmo is also the first Russian grease maker to enter the food-grade lubricant segment. No other domestic company offered such products before 2016. The company plans to expand its food grade product range and output binding and polyglycol greases, and high-temperature and abrading greases, again in an effort to substitute imports with products with similar or better operating properties, according to JV partner Lukoil. The company increased output by 25 percent in 2018, compared with the year before. Intesmo added eight products to its portfolio, seven of them food-grade greases, Lukoil reported.

Gost Riders

Up to 70 percent of Russias annual grease demand, primarily used in the industrial segment, is formulated to meet Gost standards, said Nikolay Kazachenko, an engineer in Intesmos marketing and development department.

This is a relatively big market, and demand is trending toward products with better operational properties, Kazachenko told the conference.

Meanwhile, products meeting Gost standards are still recommended for a large portion of Russian-made and Soviet-era machinery. These greases, made by several domestic producers, continue to dominate. One such smaller grease maker is the commercial division of the Elektrogorsk Institute of Oil Refining, or ELINP, based in Elektrogorsk, an industrial town 75 kilometers east of Moscow.

The company produces a range of greases under the name of Politerm, manufactured in several types. Although these greases are made under the Gost standard, they are still considered to be some of the most reliable products for Russian machinery, equipment and public transportation.

These greases, made with a polyurea non-soap thickener, can be used in a wide range of long-life applications, such as electric motor bearings used in trams and trolleys, in conveyer production, in fans used in drying ovens, or in joints and tribo systems that work in low temperatures, Victor Kirillov, chief technologist in ELINP, said at the conference.

Polyurea greases can also be used in other automotive and off-highway constant velocity joints or as seal-for-life applications, said Kirillov.

The company makes several types of polyurea greases for high- and low-temperature applications, including the power generation, pulp and paper manufacturing and food industries. The company also offers semi-liquid greases, seal greases for natural gas equipment and pipeline, as well as technical pastes and oils.

In some cases, the products meant for the countrys industry are of suspicious quality, according to Kazachenko.

This is the case when the greases are recommended by the countrys original equipment manufacturers but many Russian grease makers try to cut the costs producing these products to pocket more profits, he revealed. To achieve that, these suppliers produce greases using waste oils, or instead of lithium they use cheaper calcium thickeners, in that manner worsening the quality of the available products.

Intesmo estimates that around half of total annual grease production in Russia consists of low-quality products that barely meet performance demands prescribed by the machinerys OEMs.

Kazachenko said that Litol 24, a lithium thickener-based formulation developed in the 1970s, is the most popular grease product throughout Russia and the former Soviet states. This product is recommended in numerous operational instructions by the Russian original equipment manufacturers.

This product could not be classified as a universal multipurpose grease, because of its relatively low tribological properties, he said. Similar products include Solidol, Ciatim 204 and Fiol, among others.

As Russian grease marketers expand production to cope with imported competition, the industry
is faced with the problem of low-quality and even counterfeited products.

However, producers such as Intesmo and ELINP can still offer superior-quality Gost products used in the countrys Soviet-era machinery, equipment and transportation.