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Time to Get Eco-ready


In a paper by P.C. Naegely in 1992, and one more recently by D. Horner in 2002, each noted that up to 50 percent of the worlds global lubricant production could be lost into the environment, through emissions into the air such as engine oil exhaust, by spillage or even dumping of used oil. Such a large percentage coupled with ecological concerns has led to resurgence in the use of biodegradable feedstocks.

It also led, in 2005, to the addition of high loss/high risk lubricants – including hydraulic oils, greases, chainsaw oils and more – to the list of products covered by the European Unions Ecolabel. What are the key drivers that are leading to the increased acceptance of biolubricants (biolubes), how can companies balance cost and performance, what are the barriers that must be overcome to support biolubes becoming more accepted, and what is the potential impact of all of this on formulators based outside the EU?

Key Market Drivers

The definition of biolubes is somewhat unclear but generally to be classified as a biolube the lubricant should 1) have some degree of biodegradabili-ty, and 2) be nontoxic (or have very low toxicity) to fauna, flora and aquatic organisms.

Additional features that are frequently included in definitions of biolubes are:

Formulated from renewable base stocks, e.g. vegetable oils and derivatives.

Sustainable CO2 balance

Life-cycle analysis.

Specific performance requirements related to the end application.

According to the Frost & Sullivan report European Biolubricant Market, published in June, the European market for biolubes in 2006 was around 122,000 metric tons. With growth to 180,000 metric tons expected by 2013 (nearly 6 percent a year), this represents an opportunity for above-market growth rates.

Demand for biolubes is expected to focus on two key applications. One is high-risk applications where there is a high probability of accidental loss of the lubricant to a sensitive environment, e.g., hydraulic forestry equipment. The other will be total-loss lubricants, where by design the lubricant is almost entirely lost to the environment, e.g., chainsaw oils.

In addition to environmental concerns, market growth for biolubes is being driven by other factors as well. One is the instability in the supply and pricing of mineral oils, and to a certain extent the agricultural industrys drive to create a nonfood outlet for natural oils. Another is the equalization of the price difference between mineral oil and alternative base stocks. There are also performance requirements that now can be cost-effectively achieved through careful base fluid selection and additive solutions. Biolubes also offer ease of handling benefits, including lower irritancy to skin and lower tendency to form critical oil mists during application. This is particularly important to the highly legislated EU market.

Even taking into account the typically higher cost of a biodegradable lubricant compared to a mineral oil lubricant, biolubes could also present commercial advantages over the life of the lubricant. For example, esters have good antiwear and lubricity properties, leading to less wear and impact on the equipment, thus lowering additive requirements and maintenance costs.

Similarly, biolubes tend to have low or zero disposal costs; in fact, there is potential to reuse spent biolubes in applications such as concrete mould-release oils, which could in theory realize additional income.

Legislative Drivers

In Europe there are several national or regional labeling schemes for biolubes. The schemes are intended to create public awareness and increase confidence in using environmentally friendly products and services, by certifying with a specific globally recognized label. Some of these attempts date back 30 years now, as the timeline above shows.

Established in 1995, the European Ecolabel – symbolized by its flower logo – was created by the European Commission with the objective of encouraging business to market greener products and services in a way that would be consistent across the whole EU. In April 2005, lubricants were added as a new product group. Initial focus is towards high loss/high risk lubricants covering hydraulic oils, greases, chainsaw oils, two stroke oils, concrete release agents and other total loss lubricants, for use by consumers and professional users. As aquatic organisms can be more sensitive than terrestrial organisms to pollution, and watercourses are usually the ultimate destination for many harmful substances, the assessment criteria for the European Ecolabel particularly addresses environmental effects on the aquatic environment.

To be awarded with the European Ecolabel and carry the flower symbol, lubricants must:

1. Meet requirements for technical performance.

2. Show limited toxicity to aquatic organisms.

3. Have high biodegradability with low potential for bioaccumulation.

4. Contain a certain percentage of renewable sources.

5. Not contain substances classified as dangerous (OSPAR-list).

6. Not carry any risk-phrase on the final product.

The Ecolabel has been developed in cooperation with industry and environmental/ consumer groups. It is expected to stimulate market demand, by not only minimizing confusion created from each country having its own standard, but critically by creating an approval process to ensure that biolubes achieve the defined specification and performance criteria. Together with a promise from many governments to procure biolubes, where practicable, and armed with a large promotional budget, the EU is committed to the success of this initiative.

Formulating for Success

In order to minimize eco-toxicity issues and maximize technical performance, it is vital to select both base fluids and additives carefully. Many see the key point as ensuring optimal selection of and optimization of additive types and treat rates.

The base fluid selected determines properties such as renewability and biodegradability. Vegetable oils, or natural and synthetic esters are often used, as other environmentally acceptable base fluids do not usually meet required renewability targets. However, in more demanding applications, such as hydraulic fluids, the technical performance of vegetable oils can be limited, and there is a wide variation in performance of the various esters on the market, leading to a case-by-case evaluation of the application requirements.

The achievement of tox-limits as well as biodegradation, bioaccumulation and renewability has to be looked at for the base fluid right from the beginning. Also, the impact of the additives on these same requirements has to be checked before starting, and additives carefully chosen. Intentionally added components must be proven for acceptability with respect to numerous criteria, as outlined above.

Working in close cooperation with IVAM (an environmental research agency in the Netherlands), SMK (the Dutch Ecolabel competent body) and other European competent bodies for the Ecolabel, Ciba Specialty Chemicals has performed considerable assessment of additives for conformity with the Ecolabel. Then, to help formulators assess if their finished lubricants would meet the Ecolabel requirements, Ciba developed a unique spreadsheet tool available to customers that provides guidance in the correct selection of additives (see page 44).

Of course, meeting ecotox criteria is not the only consideration. The main purpose of the incorporation of additives into a lubricant formulation is to improve properties such as oxidation resistance, thermal stability and protection from corrosion and wear. So additives that are used must prove their compliance with the technical performance requirements of the Ecolabel. For example, DIN ISO 15380(2) is the specification required to achieve the Ecolabel for hydraulic fluids.

In general, provided they meet the performance and ecological criteria outlined, additives used for biolubes are selected from those currently used in traditional (mainly mineral oil) formulations, and do not represent significant deviations in the practicalities of use; for example cost, treat rate, physical form, etc. Some base fluids may require higher treat rates of, for example, antioxidants. On the other hand, esters in particular have good viscosity profiles and good inherent extreme pressure/antiwear performance, which may partially negate the need for additives such as viscosity index improvers or EP/AW additives.

Overcoming the Barriers

Although some commentators claim that up to 80 percent of all lubricants could be replaced with biolubes, in general commercial adoption of EU Ecolabel lubricants is hampered by a number of factors.

Firstly, there is confusion about the requirements and process of approvals, which is not helped by the lack of comprehensive tox/ecotox information on the key lubricant components. Market resistance from end users or specifiers is also hard to overcome. Many users remember historical pushes towards biolubes, and believe that a shift towards environmentally friendly products must automatically mean a downgrading of performance.

In order to overcome this conservatism, the European Commission is committing resources to public relations campaigns, and sponsoring market introduction programs. The Commission is financing various marketing activities, the main objective of which is to generate new applicants by helping individual companies to apply the criteria to their product. Similarly, Green Public Procurement favors the purchasing of environmentally friendly products, particularly EU Ecolabel goods and services.

Wake-up Call for Formulators

The EU market has become more attentive to the potential growth of biolubes. One future scenario is that legislation will be enacted to mandate the use of such lubricants, forcing market change. Companies and state organizations wishing to be seen as environmentally responsible will increasingly procure lubricants meeting accepted environmental requirements like the EU Ecolabel. For companies not yet having looked into biolubes, now is the right time to act and support the introduction of products according to schemes such as the EU Ecolabel for environmentally sensitive applications.

For companies based outside of the EU the wake-up bell is ringing. Within the United States, recent movements from the Bush Administration indicate that environmental acceptability is unlikely to remain just an EU issue. Commitment to reducing foreign oil dependency and increasing environmental accountability is likely to result in similar requirements being introduced in the United States. With many areas of natural outstanding beauty to protect and products that can now cost effectively achieve key performance characteristics, companies that move now to meet the EU requirements will be well positioned for future growth in U.S. Markets.

Market demand for biolubricants globally, and in Europe in particular, is growing at a much faster rate than the lubricants market generally. The implementation of the EU Ecolabel will serve to rationalize and simplify a market under one standard for defined ecological and performance criteria. The success of the scheme depends somewhat on the availability of suitably evaluated raw materials, and lubricant blenders ability to formulate products meeting commercial, technical and environmental needs.

More importantly, the efforts of the European Commission and the lubricant industry to expand the market and introduce initiatives, case studies and publicity will be critical to encourage demand from end users. Companies not having looked into biolubes should start to think about their contribution to best-practice environmental protection with lubricant developments, in order to be well positioned for long-term profitable growth in this market.

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