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Pulp Fiction or Synthetic Fact?

Helicopter rotors, refrigerator compressors, wind turbines and heavy-duty vehicle engines are just a few things on a very long list of vital machinery requiring lubricants, a U.S. $60 billion industry that keeps the worlds wheels turning. However, conventional mineral oil lubricants can leave a less-than-glittering environmental footprint.

One solution is formulating with synthetic or biobased base stocks made from plant or animal sources or hydrocarbons other than crude. Each synthetic base stock its drawbacks, whether they be cost, commercial-scale production or the sustainability
of the raw materials.

In a bid to surmount these obstacles, researchers at the University of Delawares Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation hope they have discovered a synthetic base oil that can tick all the performance and sustainability boxes.

As Dr. Dion Vlachos, founder and director of the CCEI, explained, for certain applications, synthetic base oils can have superior properties, such as oxidation stability and extreme temperature performance, than their mineral oil counterparts.

However, some synthetic production processes can leave chemists with a lack of tunable molecular structures and specifications, and that can be costly to resolve, said Vlachos. The solution is to tailor properties so they wont have as many issues, he said.

He went on to explain that the humble cellulose found in plant cell walls contains vast amounts of fermentable sugars. Cellulose is themost abundant organic compound on Earth and can be produced from a wide variety of plant feedstocks, but typically wood pulp and cotton. It be converted into a multitude of biochemical, biofuel and polymer products by either biological or chemical means for myriad industrial applications.

The CCEI and its nine partnering institutions recently found a way to create a base oil from non-food biomass, including everyday items such as wood, switchgrass and organic waste.

This is one of the first attempts to make renewable lubricants from abundant raw materials and in a very precise chemical way, so that the architecture of the large molecules is dialed in – something unachievable using crude oil, he said. The product is clearly a high-performance material with tunable properties, unlike anything on the market.

He continued that catalysis is the key to synthesizing new base oils. Catalysts are used to accelerate chemical reactions and create new reaction products, and lubricants catalysts allow researchers to not only to synthesize new and existing structurally similar base oils from biobased feedstock but also lend formulators extensive control over the molecules weight, size distribution, branching and specification, Vlachos explained.

Researchers hope this new material will have a global impact in the near future, as produced base oils are suitable for many applications without demanding a large amount of potentially toxic additives found in conventional lubricants.

This could eventually displace the manufacturing process of some lubricants used today and minimize the environmental carbon footprint, he said.

While an international patent application has been filed in order to secure the intellectual property rights for this eco-friendly method of keeping machinery moving, it could be some years before synthetic lubricants made from wood and switchgrass are available on the market. In Europe it may be sooner rather than later as the European Union presses ever harder for sustainable and eco-friendly industrial products and processes.

But were hoping a synthetic lubricant is on the market in the near future, he said, adding lubricantcompanies have already expressedan interest in the CCEIs research.

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