With 70 years of history behind them, perhaps its time to stop thinking of synthetic lubricants as pioneers. Theyve made deep inroads into mainstream markets, with double-digit shares in some regions, and their position resembles that of the rest of the lubricants industry: tough and competitive. Thats why R. David Whitby of Pathmaster Marketing Ltd. expects the global outlook for future sales of synthetic lubricants to be interesting, but not spectacular. While not gloomy overall, he believes that the next stage of growth for synthetics will only come through hard work and a sharpened focus on technical performance, rather than marketing sizzle.
The Surrey, U.K.-based industry analyst pointed out that commercialization of synthetic lubricants began in earnest shortly before and during World War II, with development of esters for aviation uses. The next decades brought a flood of other chemistries – polyalkylene glycols and silicones, phosphate esters and polyol esters, and more – all of which tended to serve only the most demanding niches, such as military needs, gas turbines, hydraulic systems and instruments in critical service.
That changed in the 1970s with the advent of products such as Agip Sint 2000, a semi-synthetic created in 1969 in Italy, and then Amsoil and Mobil 1 engine oils in the United States. Based on polyalphaolefins, these pushed synthetics into the mainstream of the high-volume consumer automotive lubricants business. Before long, every major and many independent brands had their own offerings.
It has now become impossible to discuss the lubricants business in Western Europe without including a discussion of synthetic lubricants, Whitby observed last month at the 17th International Colloquium Tribology in Ostfildern, Germany. In 2008, full-synthetic lubricants accounted for about 9.8 percent of the market in Western Europe, and part-synthetics accounted for another 24.6 percent, he said. That totals more than one third of the lubricants sold.
The United States also sees strong use of synthetics. Products sold as synthetic and part-synthetic in this market approached 21 percent in 2008, Pathmaster Marketing estimates.
Whitby prefers to say part-synthetics, he interjected, because the term semi-synthetic implies a product contains a 50/50 blend of synthetic and conventional mineral base oils. Part-synthetics, by contrast, may contain anywhere from 20 to 80 percent synthetic base oil, although there is no industrywide consensus on this, he conceded.
Still a Sore Spot
Now, the use of synthetics has started to increase in all other geographic regions, too, and this growth is coming at the expense of mineral oil based lubricants, Whitby told the scientific gathering, which is held every two years at the Technische Akademie Esslingen. The drawback, at least from the viewpoint of some synthetic lube mar-keters, is that many of these products are being made with very high viscosity index API Group III base oils – a sore spot for some, but a market reality nonetheless.
Whitby explained that while many feel that hydroprocessed and isomerized Group III base oils dont meet traditional definitions of a synthetic, the Group III base oils made from waxy distillates from natural gas inarguably do. And the composition and properties of these base oils are almost identical to those of the Group III base oils produced from paraffin wax based on crude oil, which clouds the issue even more.
The consensus today seems to be that synthetic is a marketing term that helps define a higher level of performance – for which users are willing to pay a higher price. Whitby predicts that users will see more products labeled as having synthetic performance in future years too. Thats good in one sense, because when it comes to equipment, the performance is what counts.
A gearbox doesnt know whether the oil it contains is based on synthetic or mineral oil, Whitby pointed out. The machine doesnt know, and whats more, doesnt care. When an application demands performance such as extreme temperature capabilities or flame resistance or higher oxidative stability, thats where it makes sense to use a synthetic. Nor is it sensible to use a synthetic in an application where its not suitable, or where the cost is not justified. We all should be focusing on whats cost effective, Whitby urged. For example, if a North Sea oil and gas drilling rig is kept off line for a day, it costs about $1 million in lost production. So if a higher-performing synthetic avoids that, thats what you use.
When properly applied, synthetic lubricants also have demonstrable environmental benefits, he added. By reducing friction and enabling higher power throughput, synthetics can improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In many cases, the molecules can be tailored to offer biodegradability and lower eco-toxicity, which are very important requirements in some markets.
Synthetic lubricants also can assure health and safety goals are met, such as no or low-toxicity for industrial lubricants, high performance for food-grade oils and greases, and fire safety for sensitive hydraulic systems.
What synthetics cannot do, however, is meet every goal every time. Theres no such thing as a universal, solve-all-problems oil, Whitby emphasized. Selecting the correct synthetic from the long menu of chemistries can be very confusing, and each type has draw-backs as well as advantages.
Polyalphaolefins, for example, can operate at very low temperatures without thickening, but when exposed to constant high temperatures in a thin-film state – think gearboxes and paper mill equipment – they can oxidize to form sticky, varnish-like deposits.
Likewise, polyisobutenes are nontoxic and can burn without residue, making them a good choice for formulating smoke-free two-cycle engine oils. But put them into a gasoline engine oil, and theyll de-polymerize at 170 degrees C, while the engine temperatures may range up to 260 degrees, Whitby warned. So you will wreck the engine.
Another example: Polyalkylene glycols offer good lubricity even at low viscosities, but there are a huge variety of these to choose from – and some are immiscible with mineral oils, PAOs and other base oils. Getting the right PAG is essential to achieve the expected performance. It is the same with esters, of which there are hundreds to sort through to find the exact properties desired.
Another issue is solvency. The excellent solvency of polyglycols and polyolesters means that it is easy to additize them. That same property can be a negative, however, when they come into contact with paints, coatings, sealants and elastomers.
The outlook for future growth is strewn with pitfalls, Whitby cautioned. First, the switch to hybrid and electric vehicles is likely to put downward pressure on all automotive lubricant demand, he said, although it will be gradual and likely take 15 to 20 years.
Second, global supply of many synthetic base oils, particularly PAOs, is limited.
And third, he said, the widening gap between demand for high-performance lubes and tightness of supply of PAOs and esters will have to be filled by API Group II+, III and III+ base oils.
In the face of these snags, its essential, Whitby said, for synthetics to focus on their technical strengths, and find demanding niches where they have key performance advantages.
How does the future look? Well, synthetics wont be a majority of the market anytime soon, Whitby said. Well still be using vast amounts of mineral oil for a long time. However, market drivers will continue to favor higher-performing lubricants, and that means synthetics have a secure future. Im not just talking about trucks and cars on the road, but also gearboxes, industrial hydraulics and other equipment. Pathmaster Marketing has identified more than 70 end uses for synthetic oils; in some, only synthetics can do the job. These include gas compressor lubes, refrigeration lubricants, fire-resistant fluids, aviation greases and many more.
However, Whitby noted, due to high overcapacity in the conventional lubricants market, the competition for lubricants will remain fierce for many years. He forecast growing inter-product competition in automotive, two-stroke, compressor, bearing and hydraulic applications, and that lube suppliers with higher-performing products, better marketing and attention to service support are likely to win market share from those that lack these attributes.
Marketers may be tempted – seeing the increase in the number of cars, buses and trucks in locales such as China and India – to bet that consumption of synthetics in those countries may someday match the levels seen in Western Europe. These countries will also be stressing ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy. But the emergence of hybrid and all-electric vehicles could change this, Whitby said, as they put downward pressure on demand for all automotive lubricants in the next 20 years.