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Europes Waste Oil Options


For a long time, Europes rerefining industry has been stagnant or even in decline. However, the situation has changed in the past few years, and this specialist part of the lubricants industry is optimistically preparing for a much larger future role.

Two factors are influencing the situation, a lubricants industry

conference in Athens, Greece, recently heard. First, the European Unions Waste Oil Directive includes a provision that imposes penalties for burning waste oil as fuel. Regeneration or recycling is encouraged within the directive.

Second, this regulatory change is being backed up by greatly improved rerefining techniques. Proponents say that modern rerefined or regenerated oils cannot be distinguished from their virgin counterparts by current test methods. Indeed, they boast, the performance can be superior to some traditional base stocks – a far cry from the days when for many people rerefining meant a simple acid- or clay-treatment process.

At present the European regeneration industry consists of 28 plants and employs about 1,000 people, the Athens meeting of the UEIL (Union Independante de IIndustrie Europeenne des Lubrifiants) was told. More than 2,000 others are employed in the actual collection of waste oil. The plants produce about 400,000 metric tons of lubricants per year, plus a further 500,000 tons of fuels and other products. These are very significant figures – equal to about half the tonnage of lubricants sold each year in, for example, in France or the United Kingdom.

So what is happening on the waste oil front in Europe?

Christian Hartmann, president of the Groupment Europeen de

lIndustrie de la Regeneration (GEIR), described the current situation in relation to the Waste Oil Directive. This directives basic objective, he noted, is to protect the environment from the harmful effects of oil contamination. Its five major elements are:

EU member states have to take measures to collect and dispose of waste oil, without causing damage to soil, water, air or people.

Discharge is prohibited into surface water and soil.

Priority is to be given to regeneration of waste oil into base oil, if there are no technical, economical or organizational constraints.

Waste oil must not be mixed with waste that contains PCBs (polychlorinated biphenols).

Facilities for treatment or burning of waste oil must not cause avoidable environmental damage (such as air pollution).

Major Bottlenecks

Implementation of the Waste Oil Directive, however, is far from uniform. Most EU member countries have introduced legislation to promote the regeneration of waste oil, with several giving a subsidy for rerefining. Some have gone so far as to subsidize waste oil collectors.

Unfortunately a number of EU countries have not fulfilled their obligation to legislate to make regeneration or recycling of waste oil the preferred option, Hartmann pointed out. Indeed, in 2004 the European Court of Justice found the United Kingdom and Sweden guilty of failing to meet their obligations under the directive. A similar situation occurred with Germany in 1999, and a further 11 legal proceedings are pending.

Hartmann considers the lack of a reliable supply of waste oil to be the primary bottleneck preventing a major expansion of the regeneration industry in Europe. Many member states within the EU still have an exemption on duty for waste oil burned as a fuel, meaning that rerefiners must compete, at times unfairly, for supplies of waste oil – their essential raw material. It does seem strange, he pointed out, that if there is a commitment to waste oil recycling within Europe, that a financial advantage is given to those organizations simply burning this valuable resource.

Meanwhile, a new life cycle assessment has been carried out in Germany by the Institut Fur Energie und Umweltforschung (IFEU) at Heidelberg. This groundbreaking analysis looked at the latest regeneration techniques that have high yields and high-quality base oils as the end product. The analysis also took into account the increased use of polyalphaolefins (PAO) and highly refined API Group III base oils, which are helping to improve the quality of both the feedstock and the regenerated base oil.

The IFEU study compared virgin base oil production to rerefining, and the relative environmental impact of each on areas such as water pollution, cancer risk potential, acidification and fossil resource depletion. In every area the Heidelberg researchers found that regeneration of waste oil leads to a significant reduction in environmental impacts compared to primary production, Hartmann said.

The German study next looked at the environmental impact of burning waste oil versus recycling it. Here again, regeneration scores best compared to use of waste oil, whether the oil was used as a substitute for coal, fuel oil or natural gas.

Life cycle analyses are always subject to debatable conclusions so care must be taken in interpreting these results, Hartmann acknowledged. However, he stressed, what is clear is that a solid scientific case is being made for promoting regeneration as the best use of waste oil.

Unfortunately in Europe our politicians seem to support this view but are reluctant to commit themselves to the real action needed to implement the changes needed in legislation to move things forward, Hartmann said.

How Goods the Oil?

Once rerefined oils become more widely available, lubricant formulators will then have another source of high-quality base oils. But what is the new quality level?

LubesnGreases spoke to Dr. Harry Wadle, area sales manager for Puralube Inc., to learn more about the new technologies, quality perceptions – and prejudices – surrounding the use of rerefined base oils.

In 1995, Puralube Inc., which is headquartered in Wayne, Pa., USA, acquired the innovative UOP-Hylube technology, which it licenses to others. Since then the company has built a new plant at Troeglitz/Zeitz in Germany, and in 2004 it started producing Group II quality base oils there.

This newest plant is one of the first in the world to produce such high-quality rerefined base oils on a commercial scale. (Viscolube S.A.s plant in Italy, operating for about a year now, is another.) The German plants current capacity is 70,000 tons of base oils per year and about 20,000 tons of byproducts such as fuels.

The important fact though is that Puralubes output is Group II+ quality, and is certainly superior to traditional European solvent neutral products, Wadle pointed out.

Wadle is optimistic that Puralube base oils will play an important role in meeting Europes growing need for Group II+ and, some day, perhaps even Group III base oils. This need is being driven by vehicle manufacturers who are stipulating improved engine oil quality to ensure their vehicles can comply with increasingly severe emission regulations. The pale color of the new generation of rerefined products such as those from Puralube, in addition to their other enhanced properties, may make them attractive to formulators of specialized industrial oils in the textile and cutting oil sectors, as well.

What is essential, both Hartmann and Wadle feel, is that UEIL and GEIR continue to lobby for a clear and uniform situation to be created across Europe. Getting the right state-supported legislation in place is essential if there is going to be a sensible commercial and environmental strategy developed to handle waste oils.

It does seem possible for regenerated base oils to play an important part in the lubricant industry in Europe and at the same time reduce the consumption of a non-renewable raw material. And if the latest life cycle analysis is correct, then the way forward for legislators and the industry seems clear.

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