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Well, 2008 is behind us – and good riddance! Think about it: All we had to face in 2008 was earthquake, hurricane, fire, flood, famine, wars and rumors of wars, finacial crises, the stock market gyrating all over the economic map, an election that seemed to be endless, crude oil prices ranging from below $50/barrel up to about $150, with gasoline and diesel fuel following the same crazy gyrations. Those are things of which we are all aware.

For individuals, there were other issues as well: birth, death, success, failure and everything in between. If I were a cartoonist, Id depict the annual handover from old 2008 to young 2009 as a beaten, bloodied old guy with his teeth missing and his body looking pretty haggard, passing the torch to a little toddler who isnt so sure he wants it.

In the automotive arena, the automakers are taking a beating such as has been seldom seen. Whether or not you agree that financial assistance from the U.S. government is justified, you have to feel for these guys. They are trying to make what the consumers want, at prices they can afford, while meeting the emissions and fuel economy requirements mandated by the government. However, in the face of a failing financial system, no one can get a loan to buy their products.

The latest sales figures indicate that automobiles are being replaced in the marketplace at only a 5 percent rate. That means that the average age of cars on the road is approaching 10 years. During the past year, gasoline prices went from about $2.50 a gallon to about $4.50 a gallon, and then back down below $2. How is an auto company supposed to plan its vehicle product mix under those circumstances?

The heavy-duty market is in a similar situation. Diesel fuel prices also bounced around a great deal, ranging from $2.50 to nearly $5 per gallon. The high cost of fuel has impacted the trucking industry greatly, and not for the good. Many formerly profitable firms are either hanging on by a thread or have been shut down, sold off or gone bankrupt. Heavy-duty engine builders are seeing declining sales in vehicles due to the economic downturn.

With that glowing introduction, lets talk about 2009 and what we can expect to see in the field of automotive lubricants.

The passenger car engine oil market is first on the docket. This year is supposed to see the final approval of the ILSAC G-5 gasoline engine oil specification, in the third quarter. Weve looked at G-5 before, and know that it will bring greater fuel economy limits, more robust performance and better catalyst compatibility. As usual, the push and pull between the Auto side and the Oil side has been a constant. If they can achieve consensus and move forward, it will be a continuing source of awe and wonder, given the early positions of both parties.

Beyond that, there will be a continuing downward push in viscosity grade requirements. SAE 10W-30 continues to be the most common gasoline engine multigrade, but 5W-30 is nudging into the lead. However, even lighter grades – like SAE 5W-20 and SAE 0W-20 – will begin to overtake and replace SAE 5W-30. The older, higher viscosity grades (including 10W-30 and 10W-40) will settle into niche volumes for those who are comfortable with these more traditional grades. Certainly, these shifts will not all happen in 2009 but the signs are there.

The heavy-duty market is in a sort of marking time mode. Engine oil requirements this year will be essentially unchanged, with API CJ-4 for the latest (2007 and newer) engines and CI-4 Plus for older engines. There is some evidence that CI-4 Plus is being used in the newer engines as well. Early concerns about the impact of CI-4 Pluss sulfur, ash and phosphorus content on diesel particulate trap systems dont seem to be as serious as first envisioned.

As I reported recently (see LubesnGreases, November 2008), some fleets are continuing to use CI-4 Plus and are still getting good life from their particulate filters. The only potential fly in the ointment is the possibility that the new API CJ-4 oils might be prone to forming emulsions. That hasnt been thoroughly discussed yet, so the jury is out on the need for possible changes to engine oil formulations.

SAE 15W-40 still rules as the dominant viscosity grade in heavy-duty engine oil applications. SAE 10W-30 diesel engine oil is a minor player, although its benefits for fuel economy are tempting some to use it in fleet operations. Of course, SAE 10W-30 has been used in colder climates for some time and quite successfully. Some SAE 5W-40 (synthetic) is being used but has not become a major player in the marketplace as yet.

In the gear oil and automatic transmission fluid (ATF) markets, no major changes are expected this year. The main ATF types for factory fill will continue to be split between the GM-licensed Dexron VI, Ford Mercon V and Chrysler ATF+4 fluids. Of course, every oil marketer will need to carry older ATF formulations – meeting Dexron III or Mercon or both – for those vehicles which still can use them for service fill. Managing these diverging products is a challenge for marketers and installers alike.

The automotive market doesnt require very much in the way of gear oil since most vehicles are now front-wheel drive and use a common sump filled with ATF for the transaxle. Heavy-duty gear and transmission fluids are not undergoing any major changes at this time. The use of synthetics in both transmissions and axles has grown, which is resulting in some incremental improvements in diesel fuel economy. A major proponent of this practice is Eaton Corp.

There are some specialty trends beginning to develop in the marketplace. The most interesting one is the use of special base stocks to create truly biodegradable engine oils. The first one, from Green Earth Technologies, has completed all API SM category tests successfully. The base fluid is derived from animal fats and could be a major breakthrough in the area of environmentally benign products. (Youll read more about this in a future issue.)

The use of biofuels, especially biodiesel, has continued to grow and will be more important in 2009. In addition to the methyl esters of soybean oil (or rapeseed in Europe and palm oil in Asia), some really innovative products have been developed. One that is very interesting (and a bit unusual) is biodiesel based on turkey droppings and byproducts from turkey processing. Reportedly, the raw materials are thermally converted to hydrocarbon materials which can function as diesel fuel. (I sure dont want to be downwind of that plant!)

Meanwhile, alternative powerplants for vehicles are in various stages of development. An earlier column discussed hybrids and questioned what kind of engine oil they might require. Dick Kabel, formerly with General Motors Research Laboratories, opined as follows: The widespread use of hybrids is really going to be interesting and challenging. With respect to the engine oil, one has to use the crystal ball extensively to speculate on the conditions and type of service that the oil will be exposed to.

One scenario is that the gasoline engine will not be used very often or for very long, and the oil will never get very hot. Thus any fuel dilution and/or water dilution will not be boiled off. This could cause some long-term problems, he added. On the other hand, the use of high current flow in the electric motors can generate a lot of heat and could affect the oil if this heat is in some way transferred to the oil. The oil could even be used as a coolant since heat rejection and cooling in hybrids is a very big problem. Similar problems, as I understand it, are also involved with the use of fuel cells and heat rejection.

Using the oil as coolant for the electric motor and circuits could serve to get the oil hot enough to drive off the fuel and water dilution mentioned above. That would be a neat solution to what might be a big problem.

Biodiesel brings its own set of problems which must be addressed. Fuel dilution by the methyl esters raises some serious engine oil pumpability problems at low temperatures. Thats not insurmountable, but it will require some adjustments to engine oil formulations to deal with the issue. At high temperatures, biodiesel can cause some deposit and corrosion problems if not handled properly. At this point, some engine test work has been done by the engine manufacturers, using standardized engine test protocols and biodiesel blends. The results were not available at this writing, but Im working on getting them to share with you.

Bottom line: 2008 was brutal on a lot of counts. Economics and technical issues were at the fore-front of engine oil development and marketing. We can all hope that 2009 will be a bit saner and engine oils will evolve to satisfy the needs of a rapidly changing market. Happy New Year!

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