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Lubricants Advance in India


MUMBAI – How can Indias manufacturing industries, particularly the small-scale sector, better apply lubrication technology? Does this 1.2-million-metric-ton lubricants market – the worlds sixth largest – have room for more sophisticated products such as synthetics and biodegradable fluids? What practical steps can be taken to safely recycle lubricants?

Those questions and more were aired at the recent 15th LAWPSP Symposium. Though LAWPSP Symposium may sound quite a mouthful, the acronym is easily recognized in Indian oil circles as standing for Lubricants, Additives, Waxes and Petroleum Specialty Products – and just as easily identified with its prime moving force, the retired Indian Institute of Technology faculty member, Professor M.C. Dwivedi. Dwivedi has been organizing a biennial symposium for the past 30 years; the latest was a three-day symposium here in March. Attending were around 170 delegates, drawn from prominent lubricant companies like Indian Oil Corp., Hindustan Petroleum Corp., Bharat Petroleum Corp., Balmer Lawrie, Avi Oil, Tide Water and Lubrizol.

The recent symposium presentations were diverse, the deliberations upbeat. The lubricant-related papers reflected industry trends and concerns: conservation and apt application of lubricants, biodegradability, rerefining and disposal of used oil, standardization of vegetable oil based lubes and more.

Dr. K.P. Naithani, general manager, lubricant technology at Indian Oil, presented an overview of synthetic lubricants from an Indian perspective. He pointed out that Indias synthetic lube consumption growth rate of 1.4 percent a year compares poorly with that of developing countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines, where growth is 3.5 percent a year. In 2006, only 10,800 metric tons of synthetic lubes were sold in India, he said, a bare 0.9 percent of the total volume. By 2008 that is projected to grow to 14,300 tons, or 1.1 percent of the market, he added, but the main drawbacks remain steep cost, lack of customer awareness and resistance from Indias petroleum based lube sellers.

After a detailed exposition of the characteristics and advantages of synthetic oils, he presented a comparison of synthetic and mineral greases and oils for various applications like engine, compressor and gear oils. According to Naithani, most oil companies in the country sell imported synthetic lubes, mainly to the steel and mining industries though some indigenous formulations especially marine oils and railroad gear oils have been successfully developed and marketed.

Tackling the vexed issue of rerefining, S.K. Chibber, retired scientist of the Indian Institute of Petroleum, recounted the laborious process of conducting experiments and guiding a few small-scale rerefiners to the path of environmentally sound practices. In India, around 1 million tons of lubricating oil is consumed annually, and it is estimated that approximately 400,000 tons of used oil is generated every year, he pointed out. Major sources for used engine oil are state transport depots, railways, big garages and automobile workshops. However, because there are no standards for handling, collection and storage of used oil, the quality is very inconsistent, making rerefining problematic.

In the past, acid-clay treatment was used for some of this oil, Chibber said, but that technology is now obsolete as it not only affects the environment but produces hazardous sludge also which is difficult to dispose of. Still, given the highly cost-sensitive nature of the Indian market, he opined that it is uneconomical to set up sophisticated solvent-refining plants. Instead, low-cost vacuum distillation followed by treatment with 1 to 2 percent activated clay is the best option; afterward, the bottom residue and spent clay can find a ready market in the rubber mat industry.

Looming Gains

N.D. Mhatre of the Bombay Textile Research Association reported the findings of an interesting study jointly conducted by his group and the Petroleum Conservation Research Organization on the gross over-application and consequent wastage of lubricants in Indias power-loom textile industry. The power-loom industry, which falls in the unorganized small-scale sector, is estimated to have around 1.7 million looms countrywide. Surveys revealed that in many cases power looms were consuming more than 20 liters of oil per annum, against the benchmark of 8 liters per annum. Conducted across the four states that have the largest textile sector – Maharastra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamilnadu – the study revealed that lack of awareness, limitations in machine design and adulterated lubes were the chief causes for this alarming scenario. Incidentally, a similar state of affairs prevails in most unorganized industries in the country.

Mhatre described how audio-visual aids enumerating appropriate oils and lubricating methods were developed and widely disseminated, and a tailor-made central lubricating system developed and installed at various workshops. Shop-floor demonstrations and training programs were also provided. He reported that a follow-up survey revealed a 40 percent to 50 percent reduction in oil consumption after these corrective actions, demonstrating that a little education can go a long way.

Elaborating on a subject close to his heart Dwivedi deliberated on the finer points of standardization of non-edible vegetable oil based functional fluids. Looking into his crystal ball, he predicted that the rising cost and steady depletion of petroleum crude would gradually make the option of vegetable oil based fluids more viable, particularly as increased acreage comes under seed cultivation and prices prove to be fairly stable. Stressing that the present standards and practices are based on hydrocarbon petroleum fluids, Dwivedi asserted that multiple vegetable oil based fluids will warrant a total review of these standards. He suggested that the well-known American Petroleum Institute classification of Base Oil Groups needs to be overhauled, to reflect the major performance and chemical characteristics of vegetable oils, simple fatty esters, water-based fluids and others non-mineral oil stocks. The test characteristics which are biased to petroleum products [need] to be eliminated and characteristics which indicate the nature and chemical composition of fluids to be incorporated in the quality evaluation protocol of base oils and products, he declared.

Debate on Veg Oils

Although Indian oil companies have yet to venture seriously into exploring the parameters of vegetable oil based lube research from a commercial perspective, Dwivedis body of academic research is well known. Considering that Indian Oil Corp. and other oil companies have begun production of jatropha oil based biodiesel, with hundreds of acres under jatropha cultivation, it may only be a matter of time before vegetable oil based lube research too gets the official nod. Evolving standardization criteria will of course be a subsequent step necessitating a massive outlay of resources, Dwivedi said.

An exhaustive overview of vegetable based oils encompassing a whole gamut of issues, from biodegradability, sustainability and self-reliance to comparative analysis with mineral oil and the advantages/disadvantages debate, was put forth by Dr. Amit Pratap of the University Institute of Chemical Technology. Dwivedis former student, Pratap has devoted himself to vegetable oil based functional fluids research since the past six years with his team of two research assistants; he uses any public forum he can to give currency to the notion of veggie based oils. Enumerating examples of air, water and soil pollution caused by mineral oil based lubes and stressing the disposal pitfalls, Pratap cited the current trend towards environmentally acceptable functional fluids and rooted for non-toxic vegetable oils.

Vegetable oils provide better boundary lubrication and load carrying capacity due to their inherent chemical structure, explained Pratap, adding, They provide a vast opportunity to manufacture high performance lubricating oils by structure modification. He noted, Obtained from renewable resources, vegetable oils provide good viscosity temperature characteristics, low metal reactivity, high molecular weight, low volatility and a higher flash point.

The challenge, he added, is to tackle the limitations of present high cost (which would only rise further with structural modification), poor oxidative stability and thermal stability and high pour point. Needless to say, the paper generated healthy debate.

Keeping the Door Open

Promotion of research and development, providing professional training and education, and being a catalyst for establishing standards for petroleum product applications, is how Dwivedi describes LAWPSPs three-pronged approach. Flagged off in 1978 at IIT as a Department of Chemical Engineering event, LAWPSP became one of the first fora of its kind for free academic discourse and drew experts form academia and industry. The IIT association lent enormous credibility and the biennial symposia regularly attracted overseas talent as well. However, in 2002 when Dwivedi retired from IIT and there appeared to be no one ready to fill his shoes and keep the symposia going, the LAWPSP executive committee undertook to keep it alive. The executive committee is drawn from a wide cross section of oil and user industry executives including several who stay involved after leaving their parent corporations – all of whom readily acknowledge Dwivedis pivotal role.

Candid as ever, Dwivedi bemoaned the tumbling standards of scientific research in both corporate and government institutions as well as the falling academic standards in Indian universities, and underlined the need to re-focus on basic experimental work. We have also felt the impact of this trend; 20 years back we used to receive over 100 papers from which 30 to 40 were selected, whereas now it is difficult to receive even 30 papers, he rued.

Ramesh Hullur, consultant to the oil and gas industry and longstanding LAWPSP member, noted, At most industry conferences today, both chemists and mechanical engineers concentrate on the application aspect of new chemistry whereas LAWPSP has tried to stay focused on fundamental chemistry in order to highlight issues of tribology. Dr. Rajiv Churi, managing director, Sarbi Engineering & WHG Pvt. Ltd. and member of the symposiums Advisory Committee, pointed out, We provide one of the very few platforms available for academic oriented research, and this assumes greater importance when you note that most corporations today actually outsource their research work. He added, Most corporate houses are no longer as supportive of initiatives like LAWPSP as they hither-to were.

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