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Its funny how we can debate the relative merits of hybrids and all-electric powered vehicles and not give much thought to what it means for engine oil marketing. Certainly hybrids will continue to require engine oil, although its uncertain what that oil might look like. If electric vehicles take center stage the eventual demise of engine oil is assured. Automatic transmission fluid may be used for these vehicles, but overall the requirements will be miniscule compared to a classic internal combustion (IC) engine.

There is a relentless march towards reducing emissions, and electric vehicles certainly do that at the tailpipe – but the question of increased emissions upstream at the power plant is open to debate. It is possible that hybrids can be made which carry their own emissions control devices (scrubbers, etc.) to reduce air pollution to the barest minimum. However, Im an old-time oil marketer and I dont want to see the business go down the drain without a major fight.

So, what will allow us to achieve the kinds of fuel economy and emissions required by federal mandate? What can the auto industry and oil industry working together do to assure that a significant portion of future vehicles will be some form of the classic IC engine design? And what will the lubricants look like for these vehicles?

First, lets look at some facts that must play an important part in any analysis of the future of vehicle engine lubrication:

1) Current U.S. vehicle sales each year are on the order of about 6 percent of the countrys total light-duty vehicle fleet. Latest estimates, from sources such as Lang Marketing and R.L. Polk Co., are that the average age of cars and light trucks on the road is about 11 years. Furthermore, the sputtering economy has caused a downturn in U. S. new car sales, from over 16 million per year before the great recession to around 10 million units now. As well, weve seen an increase in used car sales instead of new cars, such that prices for used cars are going up. None of these are good signs for those betting on the rapid introduction of exotic technologies.

2) IC engine design has improved over the years such that a lot more power is available from more compact designs. Computer managed combustion as well as the introduction of such things as overhead cams, front wheel drive and multiple-gear transmissions have combined to make gasoline and diesel power-plants more fuel efficient and emissions friendly.

3) The delivery infrastructure is in place to continue supplying gasoline and diesel liquid fuels. The fuels themselves have been improved over the years to burn more cleanly and completely, which has played a part in the design of engines.

On the flip side, the cost of crude (plus inflation) has risen to a point where prices for regular gasoline are at or above $4 per gallon, and diesel even higher. This point alone is enough to drive the introduction of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The Fuel Factor

So lets run with the idea that we need fuel efficient, extra-low-emissions vehicles that will satisfy the average driver in terms of comfort, performance and operating cost. What kinds of powerplants might we be looking at that would still require the use of more-or-less-traditional engine oils?

The first and most obvious is the gasoline IC engine. We all know about them and what changes theyve undergone in the 125 years since they were first introduced. I think the most telling point about modern gasoline fueled engines is that they have gone from specific outputs of about 0.4 horsepower per cubic inch of displacement in the 1970s to current numbers on the order of 1.15 horsepower per cubic inch.

Basically that means you can now get as much performance out of a engine as you could back in 1975 from an engine displacing 283 cubic inches. On top of that, average fuel economy went from around 15 mpg in 75 to todays 27.5 mpg. Much of this improvement was accomplished by better engine design, but some is also due to engine oils that reduce friction and protect the engine better than oils available 35 years ago. In addition, emissions have been cut by over 90 percent since 1970 – another area where engine oils played a part.

Such performance and efficiency plus the infrastructure and engineering capabilities of these IC engines should make them an indispensible part of any future product mix.

The diesel-fueled IC engine is also a part of the current scene and has all of the characteristics of the gasoline engine and then some. It is more efficient on a combustion basis, with fuel economy capabilities greater than similar-sized gasoline engines. The diesel IC engine is a more robust (read heavier) engine, which dampens some of its attractiveness. In a hybrid configuration, diesel engines should be an excellent choice to power a generator.

A third hydrocarbon fuel that hasnt seen as much interest is liquefied or compressed natural gas. Natural gas has some inherent advantages to either gasoline or diesel, such as the fact that it burns very cleanly (less emissions). It is as efficient in terms of fuel economy as gasoline. In addition, recent gas fields exploited through the fracking technique have raised proven North American reserves to 100 years or more.

Natural gas requires less refining, and distribution systems, although not in place at the current time, could be pretty simple. It is even possible to envision drivers tapping the natural gas already being delivered to heat their homes as a source of vehicle fuel. There are bugs to be worked out with this idea, but it does hold some appeal.

Looking at Lubes

Knowing the fuel options gives us a chance to talk about the engine lubricants that are required. Currently, most gasoline engines are lubricated with ILSAC GF-5 oils. These oils provide protection against deposits and wear, and reduce friction on sliding surfaces to assure additional fuel economy benefits. The development work on GF-5 was arduous and time consuming, but more improvements are coming. Among the items under discussion for the next upgrade (likely GF-6) are further reductions in viscosity, even greater friction modification and more robust protection against engine wear. Auto industry people are talking about new engine tests to replace those currently in use, and it looks as though 2015 is a potential target. (See story, page 16.)

On the diesel side, API CJ-4 is current and does deliver the performance needed for heavy-duty engines. North Americas light-duty engines should be well protected by this category, too. There is also talk of a new category in 2015 on the heavy-duty side, but most industry insiders think that changing both gasoline and diesel engine oil categories at the same time is an economic and logistic impossibility.

When change occurs for diesel powerplants, one of the highest priorities is improved fuel economy. One way to accomplish this is by lowering the high temperature/high shear (HTHS) viscosity limit. Heavy-duty diesel manufacturers say that 3.5 mPa.s is the lowest HTHS viscosity they are comfortable with, to ensure wear protection, but a lower limit would result in fuel savings. OEMs might agree to shave HTHS viscosity to something like 3.2 mPa.s, but only if they all could do so without compromising wear protection. Otherwise, different engine manufacturers will demand different oils – something the lubes industry doesnt want.

For engines fueled with natural gas (or perhaps hydrogen) the oil requirement is quite different. Since blowby of unburned fuel is not an issue, dispersency becomes less important. Rising in importance are high-temperature oxidation and nitration protection – because natural gas engines run at higher temperatures and the blowby that is created is primarily oxides of nitrogen, which can cause some real problems in the engine oil. In addition, wear still needs to be controlled; probably a natural gas engine oil based on large stationary engine lubricants will be a good starting point. Low- or no-ash formulations will probably be needed to minimize ash deposits in the engine, as well. Viscosity limits will probably be similar to todays oils so the push for low-vis products will continue.

Base Oils Role

Obviously, the state of the base oil market and its future direction are critical to engine oil developments. Base oils are being driven by a number of factors including environmental legislation, new specifications and the impact of automotive oil performance parameters such as fuel economy and engine oil robustness.

API Group I base stocks will continue their slow volume decline, thanks to shifting refinery operations and dwindling lube crude availability. There is still a need for heavier base stocks (e.g. bright stock) that cannot be made using catalytic processes, as well as demand for wax, so they wont disappear entirely.

Group II capacity is growing and North America will gain 25,000 barrels per day more in 2013 when Chevrons new Pascagoula plant comes on stream. Meanwhile, Group III capacity continues to grow at about 10 percent annually, with most of this coming in Asia and the Middle East. Finally, new volumes of rerefined Group II base stocks and gas-to-liquids Group IIIs will be appearing over the next several years – all targeting the light range of the viscosity spectrum.

I dont think Ill need to worry about engine lubricants for the foreseeable future, but the long-term outlook is for diminished demand. While the need remains, the oils will change even more. Lower viscosity, more stability, and more fuel economy are all on the plate and it will be challenging to say the least.

Its going to be very interesting over the next five to 10 years so dont stray too far. You might miss all the fun!

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