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Need to Know


With all the talk about base stock over the past 10 years, one would think finished lubricants comprise nothing but base stocks. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Depending on the lubricant type, additives typically account for anywhere from 0.5 percent to 22 percent of the finished lubricant volume. And if we are talking about marine diesel engine oil, metalworking fluid, or grease, there could be 30 percent or more additive in the finished product.

The lubricant additives business is big. Inclusive of the diluent oil used to solubilize them, global additives demand reached an estimated 4.1 million metric tons in 2006 and is on pace to reach 4.9 million metric tons by 2011. This represents a compounded average annual growth rate of 2.6 percent. North America is the leading consumer of lubricant additives, at an estimated 32 percent of the total. The Asia-Pacific region is a relatively close second at 26 percent.

If the treat rates and size of the market are not enough reason to give lubricant additives more attention, consider that they can account for 35 percent to 50 percent of the cost that goes into making a drum of engine oil. Moreover, without additives, most base stocks would be nothing but slick liquids with nowhere to go. This is because additives define the type of lubricant a given base stock will become.

By adding 0.5 percent or so of hindered phenol antioxidant to an API Group I 100N, for example, you can make a circulating oil. Take that same base oil and add 0.5 percent zinc dialkyl dithiophosphate to fight wear, 0.3 percent calcium sulfonate as a corrosion inhibitor, along with 100 parts per million of methyl silicone antifoamant, and you have an antiwear hydraulic fluid. Blend that same base stock with Group III, some olefin copolymer V.I. improver, and a commercially available detergent/inhibitor additive package, and you are well on your way to entering the engine oil business.

Sounds easy, but its not for most lubricants, or for serious participants in the lubricants business. And thats another reason to give additives more attention. Additives are typically complex combinations of chemistries, often in packages that require careful balancing and enormous experience to produce. They are mission critical to the performance of lubricants. Whereas base stocks may be the brawn in the show, additives are the brains.

This is not to blame base stocks for upstaging additives over the past decade. The attention base stocks has received over this period was well deserved.

Some might argue that the fame game for base stocks began in the early 1990s, when Chevron started to lobby for use of its trademarked Isodewaxing process technology and stocks. But the spotlight really moved to base stocks when automotive OEMs first targeted engine oil fuel economy and volatility, with their ILSAC GF-2 engine oil specification in 1995. Through no fault of their own, additives couldnt provide much help to address the OEMs A-list issue of volatility. So it quickly became all about base stock. And each time following GF-2 that the OEMs ratcheted down on volatility, base stocks got even more attention because it was clear that investments in base stock refining would be necessary for most to stay in the game.

This culminated in base stock plant closures (by Unocal, Amoco and Equilon, to name but a few), one new grass-roots plant (Excel Paralubes in Westlake, La.), several large capacity expansions (including Petro-Canada, ExxonMobil and Motiva), steady debottleneckings and other activity that have kept base stocks on Page 1. Base stocks stole even more of the spotlight when Group III successfully battled with polyalphaolefins in the late 1990s for the right to be called synthetic. More recently, the spate of plant interruptions due to hurricanes, and the run-up in prices also helped keep base stock in the news.

Now the tides have turned. With the issue of volatility under control and the supply and demand of base stocks nearly in balance, the next challenge the industry faces is how to address environmental issues associated with sulfur and phosphorus in lubricants. No, these are not new issues, and they are not the only issues. But OEMs are turning up the heat, and how these additive components can contribute to the bad actors in tailpipe emissions is taking center stage.

For those who are not close to this issue, brace yourself. The way it develops will likely have a profound effect on additive technology, on who supplies lubricant additives to whom, on additive costs, and how well they perform. This is because sulfur and phosphorus are the building blocks of many cost-effective additives in the business.

Just as GF-2 shone a spotlight on volatility and raised the curtain on a new generation of actors in the base stock business, there is a good chance that development of the ILSAC GF-4 passenger car engine oil standard and the API CJ-4 heavy-duty engine oil category may have set the stage for the same to occur in the additives business – by shining the spotlight on sulfur and phosphorus.

Next months column will look at the challenges facing the lubricant additives business and how Act II in this drama might play out

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