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Upgrade, Upheaval

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After almost four years of effort, ILSAC GF-5, the new North American passenger car engine oil upgrade, is ready for its market debut this fall. Now the lubricants industry must grapple with the nitty-gritty of bringing GF-5 products to market, while pondering their impact on engine oils future.

Recently, representatives of an additive company, an auto manufacturer and a major oil marketer described how some of these impacts – from base oil needs to drain intervals to product costs – are likely to play out. Speaking Dec. 3 at the ICIS Pan-American Base Oils & Lubricants Conference in Jersey City, N.J., all began by noting that fuel economy and emissions mandates are in the drivers seat when it comes to engine oil performance.

The outside pressure on engine oils has ratcheted up enormously, explained Mayur Shah, global technology manager at Lubrizol in Wickliffe, Ohio. First, U.S. regulators want to see Corporate Average Fuel Economy surpass 35 mpg by the 2016 model year. The average now is not quite 30 mpg, so meeting that goal will take a boost of about 5 percent a year beginning in 2012.

Emissions regulations are the other drumbeat for engine oil performance. Here, Shah noted, much of the focus is on ensuring that catalysts and other emission system components keep functioning for 120,000 miles.

Durability is another growing trend, driven by consumer demand for longer-lived vehicles requiring less maintenance. The auto industry has made huge strides here, Shah said. Scrappage rates now are just 5.1 percent of the fleet every year – 30 years ago it was 8.1 percent – while the median age of vehicles has risen to 9.4 years. In 2002, the median age of U.S. cars and light trucks was 8.4 years, a full year less.

Given these gains, and the fact that most U.S. vehicles now use SAE 5W-XX grade oils, Shah asked, what further improvement can be wrung from engine oils? Can lubricants deliver enough fuel economy for a consumer to see? he asked. Maybe not, he indicated, but the savings across the U.S. fleet is important enough to make it a priority for automakers – and formulators must live with that.

Shah offered a glimpse into what GF-5s development has cost participants since work started in early 2006. To start, he calculated, each additive company will have spent $1 million to $6 million, and about four years of time to develop its GF-5 package and complete the required registrations. Each also must work with individual oil marketer customers, pouring more money and time in their product development efforts. Base stocks – dozens of them – from various refiners needed to be tested for GF-5, and data developed to support base oil interchange and viscosity grade read-across guidelines. A core program to run a candidate engine oil in the full GF-5 test regime will cost about $266,000, plus $86,000 more for base oil interchange and viscosity read-across, he said.

Given the investment from additive companies like his, Shah stated, we must see sufficient returns if were to continue to do these upgrades.

MORE GROUP III NEEDED

For base oil, Shah remarked, the big story with GF-5 may be the emphasis on even lower viscosity oils than most people use now. Honda and Toyota are both eager to adopt SAE 0W-20 oils to boost fuel economy, with Honda declaring it has seen absolutely no problem with wear from such lightweight oils, Shah noted. By 2016, he forecast, SAE 0W-20 and 0W-30 oils together will be more than 10 percent of the market. This will impact base oil selection; well have to head to Group IIIs, Shah commented. Even if 0Ws penetration moves more slowly, you can take it to the bank that there will be continued movement to lower and lower viscosity grades.

Don Smolenski of GM Research & Development also spoke at the ICIS conference. Smolenski was one of the creators of GMs patented oil life system, the algorithm and engine monitor that alerts drivers when their engine oil has no remaining useful life.

Smolenski observed that he was involved when the ILSAC GF-series was created in the early 1990s but spent the intervening years in another area, before returning this year to engine oils. Fifteen years later, its like the movie Groundhog Day, he said wryly, with the same issues and the same spirited collegial debate with the oil and additive companies. Despite some bumps and friction, he stressed, we really have come a long way to benefit our customers, and each successive engine oil category has delivered measurable improvements.

The emphasis now (and I cant overstate this, Smolenski said) is on fuel economy improvement. Other drivers for ILSAC GF-5 include emissions system protection, overall oil robustness and turbocharger deposits. Engine oil aeration is another growing concern, and will stay on the radar screen, he added.

He agreed with Lubrizols Shah that meeting the new performance specification will probably require greater use of API Group III and even Group IV polyalphaolefin base stocks.

As for drain intervals, Smolenski said GM has a second-generation oil life monitor in development, with significantly more engine data now to support resetting it with a much longer drain interval. Changing the oil significantly sooner than required is not environmentally responsible, its not cheap insurance – it wastes resources, he stated bluntly. We stand behind the oil life monitors, and intervals are possible for 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- and even 15,000 miles.

GMS DEXOS

Eric Johnson, also from General Motors, updated the ICIS conference on GMs proprietary Dexos-1 engine oil specification, which like GF-5 will debut Oct. 1. Although some oil marketers are dismayed that GM is dropping the GF-series for its own spec, Johnson said that his company for years has advised drivers to buy oil based on viscosity (SAE 5W-20 mostly now) and its own specifications such as GM 6094M, as well as ILSAC oils.

Thats changing with the owners manuals for GMs 2011 model year vehicles, which will tell drivers to use only oils of the correct viscosity grades that are licensed by GM to the Dexos-1 specification – with no reference to any ILSAC category. A stern footnote warns, Notice: Use only Dexos approved engine oil or equivalent of the appropriate viscosity grade. Dexos approved oils will show the Dexos symbol on the container. Failure to use the recommended oil can result in engine damage not covered by the vehicle warranty.

Goals for Dexos, Johnson related, are better and longer-lived fuel economy, better aeration performance, and the potential for longer drain intervals. Dexos demands many of the same engine tests as GF-5, but alarmingly a good number of these tests are finite, Johnson said, and will expire in the 2014-to-2015 time frame. Among the at-risk tests are:

The Sequence III wear test, which uses a 3.8-liter V6 that is build-complete – no longer in production.

The Sequence IV for valvetrain wear, which relies on a Nissan 2.4-liter engine, also build-complete.

The Sequence V for wear, sludge and varnish, which requires a special fuel that is scarce in availability.

The Sequence VID, which uses a 3.6-liter GM engine which is (you guessed it) build-complete.

The M-111 sludge test, required for Dexos alone, uses the same hard-to-acquire fuel as the Sequence IV. The life of this test can be measured in months, not years, declared Johnson, and were going to need to replace them all in the next three to four years. GM will use revenue from its Dexos licensing program to help pay for replacing these and other tests, and to maintain and develop future specifications, Johnson said.

WANTED: MORE CONSENSUS

Thom Smith of Valvoline expressed concern that Dexos spells the end of the consensus method for developing North American engine oils and foreshadows the loss of a strong industrywide spec. This will create a splintered market which does not encourage innovation or differentiation, he told the ICIS meeting.

The ILSAC/Oil system for developing engine oils has been one of the strengths of the North American market, Smith said. Traditionally, the current ILSAC and API specs have dominated the market. More than 95 percent of the U.S. market now is at the API SM level, another 4 percent meets API SL, and less than 1 percent is older categories. Plus, API-licensed oils are always backward compatible, so whether you drive a 67 Pontiac, 2009 Lincoln or 2010 Prius, the latest quality level will satisfy your vehicles needs, Smith said.

On top of this broad quality base, the market has plenty of room for differentiation, with niches for full synthetics, partial synthetics, high mileage oils and other marketer innovations. Because this system has worked so well, Smith said he cant help but see Dexos as a threat. Dexos oils will require full synthetic base stocks, expected mostly to be Group III, he said. The chemistry level for Dexos, even with synthetics, is going to be higher than GF-5, and the testing regime will cost 2.6 times as much. Plus oil companies are expected to pay a royalty of 36 cents per gallon, Smith said, which will drain dollars from their future R&D budgets.

Although Dexos stated goals include improved fuel economy, efficient drain intervals, reduced emissions and reduced consumption of resources, Smith said these noble goals are often in conflict. For example, Dexos will need increased detergency over GF-5, he said, but increasing detergency hurts fuel economy and hurts fuel economy retention even more. So the goal of wear control needs to be weighed against that of fuel economy.

Longer drain intervals, too, may cut into fuel economy, Smith opined. When Valvoline extended the Sequence VID fuel economy test beyond its normal 100 hours, it found that fuel economy retention fell to half of what it had been with new oil. So extended drain intervals actually result in increased fuel consumption, he argued.

Pressed for his reaction, GMs Smolenski disagreed with that assessment. He said a rough calculation shows that the small percentage lost in fuel economy retention under extended drains, given 12,000 miles at 25 mpg, sacrifices a mere few gallons of fuel. Most drivers would gladly trade those few gallons for the inconvenience and cost of an unnecessary oil change, he said.

However, Smith also believes Dexos undermines GMs goal of increasing value for its customers. The consumer will ultimately pay the 36 cents per gallon tax to GM for using a Dexos-licensed product, he charged. Thats potentially a multimillion dollar annual revenue stream for GM.

Weve had OEM specs forever, but they always were closely tied to the current industry spec. Thats not the case with Dexos, the Valvoline executive said. All the efforts of the additive and oil companies will have to go into meeting the spec, rather than coming up with something new.

Smith has been involved in consensus engine oil standards-setting since the early 1990s, and said the GF-5 negotiations were the most difficult ever. Although an 11th-hour agreement was reached, he said that OEMs, oil marketers and the additive industry share the blame in how late the standard has arrived – a year past its original deadline.

A key issue now is making the conversion to GF-5 formulations without excessive cost or operational complexity, he added. Fortunately, said Smith, there are no major base oil changes required, and current additive technologies appear well-positioned for GF-5 too. So no radical changes are needed. It looks like were good for GF-5 and we wont have all the concerns weve had in the past when making these changes.

The distance traveled from GF-1 to GF-5 in fact is enormous, Smith said, echoing Smolenskis observation. Many of the performance parameters built into GF-5 – seal compatibility, gelation index, fuel economy retention, turbocharger deposit control, water tolerance – did not even exist in GF-1.

And although the industry struggled to give birth to GF-5, he and the other speakers agreed on one thing: Drivers will benefit from the upgrade, even if they dont know it.

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