Finished Lubricants

Creative Juices for Food-grade Lubes


Food-grade lubricants could see explosive growth in the next few years, with multiple drivers spurring demand, say additive companies in this market. Demand will surge in developing areas like China and India, as they increase their consumption of processed foods. North America and Europe, too, will buy more good-grade lubes as end users adopt good manufacturing practices, such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). And as new chemistries emerge to support the higher loads and speeds of modern food processing machinery, even the cost of food-grade lubricants may be less of an obstacle to growth.

It all adds up to good news for specialty lubricant suppliers, especially those who want to differentiate themselves with 11-1 lubricants and greases that stand up tot he most demanding equipment, said Jeannine Jones of OM Group Americas in Westlake, Ohio. The global market for food-grade lubricants is averaging 4 percent growth a year, she said, and may soon reach $700 million.

Jim Reddy: That’s two to two-and-a-half times the cost of non-food-grade lubes, making them a knockout in any marketer’s portfolio. But until recently there was little to distinguish most food-grade lubricants, and plant operators were leery of their performance. Now a new age of complex greases is coming, he said. In pilot trials at seafood, poultry and beef processing plants in the united states and Canada, Reddy said he found new openness to trying high-performing greases, like those based on OMG’s Calciplex thickener.

There was a time when food plants were squeezed so tightly that cost-cutting was rampant, even down to the lubes being used, he said. That day is gone. Operators have realized that lubricants can make them more productive. Sure they can buy cheap grease, but then they have to reapply it five times as often. We’re seeing more intelligent operators, who understand how to do a cost-benefit analysis.

We think this is soon to be an explosive new market, he continued. We believe there is not enough food-grade lubricant manufacturing capacity out there right now to meed the demand, if it takes off the way we’re expecting it to.

H-1 lubricants are voluntarily listed in the NSF White Book and are intended for use in food and beverage machinery wherever incidental food contact might occur. Industry consultant and toxicologist Richard Kraska, Bonita Springs, Fla, considers this phrase unfortunate, because it may lull users into a false sense of safety about H-1. In food processing, there should not be any contact with lubricants at all, he stressed. There are also H-2 products, which can be used in other equipment in a food plant which does not directly incolve the food processing, such as an air conditioning compressor. The main requirement for H-2 lubricants is that they be nontoxic, but otherwise they are pretty similar to conventional lubricants.

Demand would sprout quickly if food processors would comply with using H-1 lubricants everywhere they should. In 2004, though, researchers at Kline & Co. found that 60 percent of U.S. food plants were not using food-grade lubricants in their manufacturing processes at all.

Mike McHenry of Ciba Specialty Chemicals in Tarrytown, N.Y., which makes more than a dozen antioxidant, corrosion and extreme pressure additives for food-grade lubes, doubts the compliance in the field is even that good. He estimated only about 20 percent of U.S. food and beverage companies are using food-grade lubricants, in part because they don’t know better or have tired of H-1 lubricants’ weaknesses.

Major companies like Pepsico and Nestle are already in compliance, he said, but many others are still using non-food-grade lubes. You’ll even find plants using motor oil in their gearboxes – things that don’t even belong in the plant from a HACCP protocol standpoint. Some just go to Wal-Mart and buy any multipurpose grease off the shelf, just to make sure their equipment works.

But signs are that the USDA may be getting ready to lower the boom, on plants that don’t use H-1 lubes, OMG’s Reddy said. The Food Safety and Inspection Service has announced that it is going to be boosting it’s HACCP verification procedures by 20 percent over last year, and that means it’s inspectors are going to be looking closely at what lubricants are used in food operations. Those plants that are not in compliance are going to have to explain why.

Prospects for growth in good-grade lubes look even better outside the United States, said Bob Marchiando of GE Advanced Materials in Strongsville, Ohio. We believe that the high-performance lubricants segment will grow at a rate of 5.4 percent annually, to account for 10 percent of the global lubricants market by 2008. Food-grade lubricants are a small portion of that, but could see the fastest growth, he added. GE is ready for it with a line of high performance products based on solid lubricant boron nitride, which it registered last year with NSF as HX-1, the category for in ingredients for H-1 products.

For boron nitride, we see initial growth coming in North America and Europe, but developing markets are coming along quickly, in places like China where you’re now seeing demand for processed foods beginning to grow, Marchiando said.

A 2005 report from the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service supports this view. China’s annual good consumption is staggering, it said – 541 percent of the world’s pork, 19 percent of it’s ice cream, 19 percent of poultry. But just 30 percent of China’s food now is processed, compared to 80 percent in Western nations, so FAS expects food processing machinery sales to skyrocket.

Much of this new equipment will need better lubrication, said Saurabh Lawte of Lubrizol Corp in Wickliffe, Ohio. The promary opportunity for growth will be in the markets of India and China. These countries have not had substantial food processing industries in the past and they are now moving towards that. But so far they are not using H-1, in part because they don’t have the backyard supply. That will change, he adds, as Asia’s food processors invest in new plants and equipment, and want lubes to match. Once a food manufacturer has an investment in a quality piece of equipment, he’ll want to be sure it runs efficiently. And that means using proper lubricants.

Speed and pressure are bywords for food and beverage machinery everywhere, observed Robert Stepan of Functional Products Co. in Macedonia, Ohio. One example is an extrusion machine used to prepare the dough for a chicken-filled croissant. The machine actually extrudes a very thing dough, under high loads and extreme pressure. Another example is juice manufacturers, over 80 percent of the oranges grown in Florida are actually made into juice, which is extracted using very high pressures. Sugar-cane rolling mills are another example, where the sugar goes through a series of mill stands, driven bu highly loaded gears.

Can regular H-1 lubricants handle such high production speeds and output? Not easily, because they are limited to using generic ingredients found in the Federal Register (21 CFR Part 178.3570) or among those that FDA calls generally regarded as safe (GRAS). Most H-1 products are based on white oils, too, making them less durable than conventional lubes. Their performance might be boosted with additives – if only the choices were better.

One reason so few new chemistries come out is it can cost half a million dollars to shepherd a component through the entire FDA approval process – and the approval is very narrow in scope, said Cibu’s McHenry. You’re limited to such small treat volumes that there’s not enough return to justify the expense, so people don’t tend to pursue this.

Generally, if you look at the list of approved additives in the regulations, the technologies you’ll see are archaic, like 1950’s style additives, Richard Kraska pointed out. But some companies have been active in getting new products approved. There is no FDA Tooth Fairy, the last of approved additives only gets updated if someone asks it to be. Both Lubrizol and Ciba have been successful in getting FDA’s nod for new chemistries, and both say they are working now to get more approvals.

Meanwhile, it takes great creativity to deal with the FDA restrictions, observed Lawate. For example, standard ZDDP antiwear agents are ruled out in H-1 lubricants, even though ZDDP is very effective in delivering antiwear performance. So you must use a relatively small list of approved additives to deliver performance, and that’s where creativity comes in – in how you combine these.

The issue is also complicated because food-grade lubricants as a whole serve not just one type of equipment. You’ve got compressors, can seamers, conveyors, and hydraulics and gears, and there’s not a universal lubricant that can do it all, Lawate continued. In some areas, the machinery is much more demanding, like can-seamer oils that have to deal with high speed and high throughput. The challenge is that there are so many applications and so many pieces of equipment in each plant.

The approvals process is very challenging, agreed GE’s Marchiando. Our registration of boron nitride required research, testing and due diligence spanning many years. The testing took place over years, and then we had to provide the data and assemble it into the needed format. Only after the FDA had given a favorable review did NSF add GE’s new products to it’s White Book.

Boron Nitride is white, chemically inert and nontoxic, Marchiando pointed out, and it gives excellent lubrication performance at operating temperatures up to 1,600 degrees F in air and 4,000 F in inert atmospheres. It has been used in skin moisturizers and lipstick for many years, and also in rugged lubricants such as rock-drill greases. So it may offer something unique in food-grade lubes: safety plus toughness.

A technical paper by GE’s Donald Lelonis explains that boron nitride is a highly refractory (that is, heat-resistant and stable) material with physical and chemical properties similar to graphite. But unlike graphite it does not occur in nature. It is typically synthesized from boric oxide or boric acid in the presence of urea or urea derivatives and ammonia. By changing the process conditions, Lelonis explained, the crystalline ceramic produced may be sharp and abrasive or – ideal for lubricants – hexagonal and lubricious. The higher the synthesis temperature, the greater the lubricity.

This is an issue now in food processing, where equipment is getting into higher temperature regimes and the available lubricants today do not meet the temperature needs, Marchiando said. Boron nitride performs very well at extremely high and low temperatures, and in the presence of water still maintains it’s lubricant properties. Another advantage it has over other solid lubricants like graphite and molybdenum disulfide is that it’s white, and there’s a growing trend in the food industry towards using clean, pure, inert materials. Appearance is very important in terms of what lubricant you use on the equipment.?

Also, relatively new to the NSF White Book are Calciplex overbased carboxylates, a just add water powdered technology for making grease introduced by OMG in 2004. Calciplex contains a food-grade form of one of the best extreme pressure additives out there – a hexagonal-shaped laminar calcite, Reddy said. Not all calcite is created equal, but this version lays out like graphite, as a solid lubricant that reduces friction.

Reddy is intrigued bu the idea of combining boron nitride with OMG’s food-grade products. Our research is showing that food processing operations and plant managers say they are willing to spend extra dollars for lubricants that won’t slow them down. That’s a change.

In the past, you could pay as much as you had to, but still not get the performance you wanted. But now we’re into a new age, with out Calciplex product and GE’s boron nitride, meaning that you can make lubes that are more robust. With better antiwear properties. The trick will be finding that delicate balance.

Functiona Products’ Stepan is also excited by the opportunities that Claciplex and boron nitride may offer. Functional Products makes tackifiers, thickeners and antiwear agents to improve lubricants, and was one of the first companies to list it’s food-grade products in NSF’s HX-1 registry.

We’re working to compound boron nitride into a grease additive package, Stepan said, using some of our own NSF-approved chemistries like tackifiers and corrosion inhibitors, but the trick is getting the right balance of particle distribution and volume. Because it’s expensive – $20 to $25 a pound in bulk – he’s hoping to get the boron nitride down to as low a level as possible and still be effective, for a tasty, cost-competitive additive package.

OMG’s Jones expects this kind of maneuvering and strategizing is repeating itself in laboratories elsewhere too. Everyone is looking to differentiate themselves and their products, and they see food-grade as a niche market with regulatory drivers that are going to increase demand. So it’s the way to go.