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Paradox in the Crankcase

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When it comes to engine oils, the list of must haves drawn up by automakers and heavy-duty engine builders varies little, year after year. Fuel economy, emissions systems compatibility, wear protection and overall robustness always top the list. The need for one oil that can be used worldwide is also frequently mentioned.

However, as the specifics are laid on the table, formulators find themselves facing a splintering market, with regional and technical differences becoming more evident. Where best to apply their precious dollars for engine oil development and production? Can they afford to field a full line of products to meet the proliferating needs? Or should they play it safe with broader, generic offerings, which may offer less room for innovation and growth?

The stakes are not small, Barry Hemans of Lubrizol pointed out on Dec. 1 To the ICIS Pan American Base Oils and Lubricants Conference. To develop, test and gain approvals for a full line of engine oils for North Americas and Europes vehicles, marketers can spend between $4million and $8 million before selling a single drop. And these upfront costs are going up.

OEMs in Europe tend to be diverging rather than converging in their requirements, so the entry costs are getting higher, he said. The test programs for each oil type are lengthy, and to some degree require a judgment about future performance profiles and market needs.

Beyond the broad basics, North American OEMs are unified in looking for better sludge control, piston cleanliness, lower oil consumption and, in many cases, turbocharger protection, said Hemans, who is passenger car engine oil business manager at the Wickliffe, Ohio, additives company. This means formulators will need to create oils in lighter viscosity grades, to improve low-temperature flow; to increase the dosage of friction modifiers, to nudge fuel economy; to apply less sulfur and phosphorus; to reduce overall oil volatility; and to add more antioxidants, dispersants and detergents.

Outside of North America, however, the rising trend is for individual OEMs to issue their own specs and approvals, embroidering their own needs on top of the oil industrys accepted specification. For example, Hemans said, an SAE 5W-30 or 5W-20 oil sold in Japan may require additional bench tests (such as a hot-tube panel coker test for oxidation); theSAE 0W-20 and 5W-20 grades may also have to demonstrate added fuel economy in order to get OEM approvals. This is usually an in-house fuel economy test, using the OEMs own engine, rather than a standardized test that meets many OEMs needs.

In Europe meanwhile, to meet strict Euro 5 emissions limits, some of the continents OEMs are equipping passenger cars with diesel particulate filters (DPF), a step unseen in North America. This has a direct impact on the lubricant, Hemans pointed out, because low-ash formulations are needed to extend the particulate filters life. Another problem is that DPF post-injection can lead to excessive fuel dilution in the oil, and stymie the use of fuel-saving lower viscosities like SAE 0W-20 and 0W-30.

FRICTION AND VISCOSITY

North Americas future profile definitely includes anew passenger car engine oil, now being hammered out among automakers, oil companies and additive suppliers, added Jim Linden, staff scientist at General Motors Research &Development in Warren, Mich. The ILSAC/Oil Committee, which he co-chairs, is expected to approve the new GF-5 oil in the third quarter of 2009, so licensing of the new oils by the American Petroleum Institute can begin by July 1, 2010. That will put them into the market in time for the model-year 2011 passenger cars.

The general direction for GF-5 includes a new engine sequence test for fuel economy, Linden told the two-day conference. This test, the Sequence VID, will replace the current VIB fuel economy test, and is expected to discern improvements that may come from the use of friction modifying additives as well as low-viscosity oils.

Automakers have pushed for years for lower viscosity oils, and Linden gladly pointed out that their efforts are bearing fruit. Sales of SAE 10W-40 engine oils seem finally to be fading, with SAE 10W-30 now the dominant U.S. grade. He also sees 5W-30 on the rise, and 5W-20 gaining ground.

This emphasis on viscosity has some foreseeing a drive to lower Noack volatility, Linden added. Reduced volatility means less oil evaporation, so the oil doesnt gain in viscosity as easily. Without saying where he thinks the final number will land, Linden said that some feel that GF-5s Noack volatility limit will be set at 11 percent or 13 percent evaporative loss, versus the 15 percent allowed today. This would be a huge challenge for both oil and additive companies, as it could mean cutting down -or even possibly eliminating -the amount of API Group I stocks in such oils.

DIESEL DIVERSITY

The conference also got a look at the heavy-duty side, from Bengt Otterholm, lubricants coordinator for Swedens Volvo Group, which includes Mack Trucks. Generally,he said, after treatment compatibility is rising in concern, but fuel economy and engine durability are not far behind. The growing use of biofuels is increasing the risk of fuel dilution, he warned, which is hurtful for the oil and leads to sludge and bearing corrosion.

For the past decade, Otterholm said, emissions regulations have been the major driver in heavy-duty engine oil development, especially in the United States, Japan and Europe.Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter have been the two main areas of focus, and control our daily lives, along with hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide, he stressed. This has been the single strongest driver for heavy-duty engine development.

Not all geographic areas enacted clean-air mandates at the same pace, however, so diverse engine technologies emerged. Europe favored selective catalytic reduction (SCR) for exhaust after treatment, but Japan and the U.S. were faster to embrace exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and DPF. However,by2010 the U.S. will probably require SCR as well, while Euro 5emissions limits, coming in 2008, will create a wider combination of technologies, with EGR,SCR and DPF all in play.

Each of these is laden with its own conflicts, Otterholm explained. Using more acid-fighting minerals such as calcium and magnesium can mean a boost in drain intervals, but is very harmful for DPF. Phosphorus, though excellent for protecting valve trains and ring/liner bearings, is highly harmful to catalysts. And sulfur (a key component in detergent/inhibitor additive packages) damages DPF and catalysts -but if you takeout the detergents, both the drain intervals and deposit control will suffer.

Probably the toughest of these conflicts will be seen in vehicles using both EGR and DPF, Otterholm said. This is probably the worst challenge for lubes, and if they can make that work, it will probably protect the other systems too. So the EGR/DPF formulation will drive motor oil development.

PLAN YOUR ATTACK

As formulary choices become more complex, blenders will have to plan ahead for which segment they want to participate in: North American, European or global? Passenger car or heavy-duty? Standard or high-end? Broad user base, or narrower OEM approved?

None of the choices will be cheap, Lubrizols Hemans indicated. The cost of creating an ILSACGF-4oil for North American passenger cars can require $150,000 to $300,00intesting, and may take up to four months to accomplish, he calculated, while a heavy-duty diesel oil meeting todays API CJ-4 category will cost $1 million to $2 million intesting, and take 12 months to deliver.

By comparison, the European market takes much more testing and qualifying, because individual OEM specifications, from manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz, BMW and Volkswagen, may be needed on top of the ACEA standard. A mainline SAE 10W-40 passenger car engine oil may cost $730,000 to $1.5 million in tests, while atop-tier product with extra OEM approvals may reach $2.4 million in costs, Hemans said. It can take longer,too, up to 18 months to bring to market. And to meet a super-high performance spec, such as Mercedes Benzs MB228.3 or MAN 3275, a formulator can expect to spend perhaps $1.24 million and nine months more.

Can a lube marketer really cover all these heavy-duty and passenger car needs, in both the mainline and premium permutations? In some cases, blend plant logistics may dictate the answer,with base stock storage tanks being the deciding factor, Hemans concluded.

But there remains the question of which marketers have the deep pockets -or the will -to field the entire line-up.

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