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Slow Ascent for Biobased Lubes


During the mid-1990s, it was Cape Canaveral – not Houston – that had a problem.

NASA officials had detected a fault in the lubrication system of its gargantuan crawler-transporter. With the mammoth mobile launch platform attached on top, the crawler rolls the space shuttle from its hangar to the launch pad. Traveling at a speed of less than one m.p.h., the crawlers four-mile journey – taking as long as eight hours – was causing extensive environmental damage.

The crawlers lubricant, a toxic and hazardous blend of petroleum distillate with heavy-metal based additives, was leaking onto the ground and polluting the waters and wildlife sanctuary in and around the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). When the EPA raised a red flag, Daytona Beach-based Sun Coast Chemicals provided the solution: X-1R, a non-toxic, biodegradable lubricant.

The light amber-colored, extreme pressure compound now lubricates the pins on the tracks of the crawlers belt. The crawler travels on eight tracked tread-belts, containing 57 tread-belt shoes apiece. Each shoe weighs approximately 2,100 pounds and measures 7.5 feet long and 1.5 feet wide. With crawler, mobile launch platform and space shuttle all in place, the lubricant bears the weight of 12 million pounds.

With X-1R, NASA did not have to reconfigure the crawler, said Jeff Ketchledge, X-1Rs co-owner and executive vice president for sales and marketing. Their [old] formula simply could not handle the load.

They have definitely seen a difference in the performance of the track unit – a reduction in noise, a smoother rollout for the shuttles and of course less wear and tear and corrosion buildup, Kevin Cook, director of Space Technology Awareness, a Colorado Springs-based, non-profit organization promoting space awareness and education, told LubesnGreases. In reality, the environment has been safer.

X-1R passed all NASA tests, met all EPA requirements and has since become a major part of the crawler preventive maintenance program at KSC. Since 1994, every space shuttle that has been moved to the launch pad for lift-off has been transported with the biodegradable compound. Three hundred to 400 gallons of it are ordered whenever there is a shuttle launch, reports Ketchledge, and today the company even bears the name of its biodegradable lubricant. Sun Coast Chemicals is now X-1R Corp.

For NASA, the monumental challenge of transporting its space shuttles – and embracing biodegradability – was solved by an eco-friendly lubricant composed of synthetic petroleum hydrocarbon. This illustrates one of the key obstacles that biobased – as opposed to biodegradable – lubricants face. When compared to their petroleum counterparts, vegetable oil based lubricants have performance limitations that have kept their sales from zooming. The U.S. market still moves cautiously – at the pace of the crawler – when it comes to embracing lubricants from natural, renewable sources such as plant or vegetable oil-based.

Sometimes its not just lubricity but other functional components like EP agents that are needed to assure performance at the heaviest loads and fastest speeds, said Brian Taylor, technical director at X-1R Corp. No natural EP is as effective as the synthetic EP in the X-1R product that provides wear protection in the tracks of the NASAs crawlers.

Once-throughs Enough

We manufacture a number of biodegradable oils but are not a big user, David Kramer, Chevron Global Lubricants technology manager in Richmond, Calif., pointed out. They are used mainly by customers in once-through or low-severity service in environmentally sensitive locations such as farms, forests or water. Chevron is not a big user of these oils because the vast majority of our equipment requires long-life, high-performance lubricants. Cold-flow requirements can also be a barrier for most biodegradables. At colder temperatures, vegetable oils have a comparatively high pour point (the temperature at which the oil loses it fluidity and does not flow).

Vegetable oils do not inherently have the oxidative stability needed for many lubricant applications. This can be resolved by using additives, by hydrogenation or by esterifying the oils – all of which add cost.

In some applications, such as engine oils, the cost of antioxidants needed to improve oxidative stability is much higher for vegetable oils, according to Jim Martin, market development manager at the United Soybean Board and vice president of Omni Tech International, in Midland, Mich. This ultimately drives up the cost of a finished biobased lubricant.

Steven J. Randles, global applications director at oleochemicals supplier Croda, in Wilton, U.K., explains that in some practical instances, biobased lubricants may not even be relevant. If it is being applied in a system that is sealed like a compressor, then biodegradability is not that important, he said. It is sometimes better to recycle.

A Small Slice

All biodegradable lubricants are derived from either synthetic hydrocarbons such as polyalphaolefins, synthetic esters and polyglycols, or from renewable sources like animal or vegetable oils. They are most critical to industries such as agriculture, forestry, construction, food and beverage and marine, where the lubricant, if spilled or exposed, needs to be sensitive and harmless to the environment and workers.

The current size of the biodegradable lubricants market is small, concedes Lou Honary, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa and director of the National Ag-Based Lubricants Center (NABL) in Cedar Falls, Iowa. While there is no official data on the biobased lubricants market in terms of volume, NABL estimates current U.S. sales of industrial lubricants made of vegetable oils are $50 million a year.

In the United States, a lack of regulatory pressure has also contributed to the weak bio lubricants market. The 2002 Farm Bill stands alone as the only piece of national legislation passed by Congress that promotes the use of eco-friendly products from U.S. farmers and ranchers. It ordered government agencies to give procurement preferences to biobased products where possible – with little impact so far.

If a regulation is introduced to require the use of biodegradables, the market would grow rapidly, feels Honary.

Soy Advantages

In the United States, soy is the most readily available vegetable oil, accounting for an estimated 75 percent of North American seed oil production. Other vegetable based lubricants include canola, corn, sunflower and palm oil.

Environmental Lubricants Manufacturing Inc., the Iowa-based manufacturer and distributor of biobased lubricants and greases headed by Honary, relies on genetically enhanced high oleic soybean oil, pressed from U.S.-grown soy-beans, to create industrial lubricants. Soybean oil based lubricants offer several distinct advantages beyond those offered by petroleum base oil, he says.

With its low toxicity, soy is rapidly biodegradable and will not harm the environment. It offers exceptional lubricity and reduces the amount of friction. It has a high viscosity index – 223 for soybean oil compared to 90 to 100 for petroleum oils. The advantage of having a higher V.I. is that the viscosity will change less as temperature fluctuates, according to Honary.

Soybean oil also has a high flash point (the lowest temperature it becomes flammable in the air). Its flash point is 610 degrees F, versus 392 F for mineral oils.

Omni Techs Martin adds that planting, harvesting and processing soybeans is not an issue in either emissions or energy use. From a life-cycle perspective, delivering a unit of soybean oil (pound, gallon, kilo, etc.) as a replacement for the same unit of lubricant basestock from petroleum is quite efficient and sustainable, requiring less total energy and producing fewer air and water emissions. Soybean oil requires less energy to produce and offers an alternative to imported oil, he says.

Crude soybean oil currently costs about 35 cents per pound ($2.70/gallon), while refined soy oil can cost 40 percent more. High-performing API Group II mineral base oil, by contrast, costs about $3.00 per gallon today.

With the demand for petroleum increasing and the price of petroleum at or above $70 per barrel, biobased products are becoming more competitive in pricing, Honary pointed out.

Europe Leads

The European market is far ahead of the United States in using eco-friendly lubricants. During the 1980s, Europe put restrictions on some petroleum based products and mandated the use of biodegradable lubricants for environmentally sensitive areas such as forests, lakes and waterways. Germany adopted a blue angel logo and the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden used a white swan to signify bio-friendly products. In December 2004, Crodas Randles pointed out, the European Commission voted in favor of adopting a European eco-label to identify environmentally acceptable lubricants. Called the Euro-marguerite, its intended to encourage users to buy biodegradable products including hydraulic fluids, concrete release agents, chain saw oils and greases.

Rapeseed (canola) is the vegetable oil most used in making lubricants for European markets. According to consultant David Whitby of Pathmaster Marketing in Woking, U.K., by 2004 the total Western European market for bio-lubricants had reached 172,000 metric tons a year – 3.6 percent of the market. Of this, two-thirds were synthetic esters (many of them derived from vegetable oil raw materials) and the rest were simply vegetable oil based. The market has been growing at about 5 percent per year for the past 10 years, and will continue to do so.

But even in eco-friendly Europe, end users are unenthusiastic, Whitby told last years Colloquium Tribology in Ostfildern, Germany. Vegetable oils typically cost more, and users of lubricants are reluctant to use a more expensive product unless there are compelling economic or regulatory pressures to do so. In his view, vegetable oils are best used as raw materials for making synthetic esters, or as lubricants dedicated to less demanding applications.

Sprouting Hopes

As environmental consciousness has been raised in the U.S. over the past two decades – and as crude oil prices have risen – so has there been a renewed interest in vegetable oil-based lubricants.

There are signs of an upswing, with U.S. growers associations spending money to conduct research on new, non-food uses to reduce crop surpluses. The federal government is slowly unrolling the policies needed to promote the procurement of biobased products within federal agencies, as authorized by the 2002 Farm Bill. There have also been significant advances in biodegradable lubricant technology and genetic enhancements to seed oils.

Thats good news for the biobased stalwarts such as Terresolve Technologies, which since 1996 has been developing, producing and selling biodegradable lubricants. Using renewable vegetable feedstocks, it supplies a wide range of industries including construction, forestry, marine, transportation, federal, state and municipal governments.

For over 11 years, the Eastlake, Ohio-based company has worked to erase the negative perceptions put forth by early generation, underperforming bio-friendly products that damaged the industry. To compete with conventional products, a marketer must first demonstrate equivalent or superior performance and then show economic advantage, insists Terresolve CEO Mark Miller.

Likewise, Seattle-based International Lubricants Inc. has been researching, manufacturing and selling patented high-performing lubricants developed from environmentally safe, seed-based sources since 1984.

We feel the market is on the way up as more regulations are put in place for these type of products compared to the past, says Kristen Clark, marketing manager there.

For now, NABLs Honary says that guerilla marketing is showing industries the feasibility of these products, one customer at a time. But he admits that proper marketing is needed to show the value of biobased lubricants and their comparable price and performance.

The next decade will see an even greater rise in the use of biobased lubricants as further advances are made and awareness is raised, believes Honary. We believe that in time, biodegradable lubricants will grow because of their performance and competitive pricing, he indicated. This could happen if the price of petroleum approaches $90 and $100 per barrel, he added.

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