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The other day my wife and I were driving back to Phoenix from a trip to California. I was musing over the topic for my next LubesnGreases column, and she said very innocently, Youve worked for 50 years in the oil industry. Why not write about all the changes that have occurred? I thought for a few seconds and replied, Good idea!

So, what has changed over the last five decades? What oil companies and brands existed then that are gone now? What occurred with engine oils in terms of base stocks, viscosity, additives, performance, and even how standards are set? Well, heres my take on it all.

My first full-time job was with Richfield Oil Co. Many of you may not have heard of Richfield but you all probably know Arco, created when Atlantic Refining and Richfield merged in 1966. (Had the merger occurred about 18 months later, the company might have been called Raco, since it was a Richfield exploratory well that located Alaskas North Slope oil fields.) Of course, Arco is now a subsidiary of Tesoro.

At the Richfield Research Center in Anaheim, Calif., I worked in lubricants development, exploring how to boost shear stability in SAE 10W-30 engine oils using polymethacrylate viscosity index improvers. Out in the retail market, engine oils were mostly monograde SAE 30 and met API Service MS. If a company wanted to claim superior performance, it obtained U.S. Army MIL-L-2104B approvals as well. That added Caterpillar 1-H, Cat LTD and CRC L-38 tests to the list of API MS engine tests which your oil had to pass, including General Motors Sequence II/III, Chryslers Sequence IV and Fords Sequence V.

The best base stocks available were solvent-refined paraffinics. Wed call them Group I now, except APIs Base Stock Groups didnt exist yet. Arco made its lubricants with solvent-refined stocks from Chevron in California, and others shipped west from the midcontinent refineries of Sinclair Oil and Cit-Con (Cities Service- Conoco).

Emissions controls were just beginning to be introduced on vehicles. My first car, a 57 Chevy, didnt have a positive crankcase ventilation device when I bought it from a friend. The road draft tube was plugged and the crankcase fumes were recycled back into the intake manifold. Obviously, this added some stress to the oil.

In 1969, Arco bought Sinclair Oil, closed the Anaheim site, and offered to transfer me to Sinclairs R&D facility in Harvey, Ill. Being a California guy, I went to work for Unocal R&D in Brea, Calif. It was quite a change going from Arcos 150-person lab to this 100-acre campus staffed by 600.

Unocal had just endured an offshore oil well blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel and was busy trying to rebuild good will. (It ultimately was broken apart, with its Union 76 brand absorbed by Tosco, then Conoco-Phillips and now Phillips 66.) Settling in at Brea, I found not much had changed as far as engine oils were concerned. There were rumblings about engine oil quality, and equipment manufacturers wanted their own tests to differentiate and confirm performance, but we were still using the API MS designation.

However, real change came at us soon enough. The American Petroleum Institute, the Society of Automotive Engineers and ASTM got together and created the current system of oil categories, designating API S oils for gasoline engines and API C oils for diesels. The Tripartite was born!

Under the tripartite, SAE was to represent the OEMs and API the engine oil marketers, while ASTM brought the technical know-how to develop the tests to characterize the oils performance. It took a while but the system finally got off the ground in 1976 and is with us today, albeit with many subsequent modifications.

To make its lubricants, Unocal used Group I-type stocks of average quality from its own Rodeo, Calif., refinery. It also made base oils in Nederland, Texas, which were typical mid-continent base stocks of the day.

At this point, in the early 70s, the phase-out of leaded gasoline began to impact everything. Engine builders worried about premature valve seat recession, since the lead salts created in the combustion chamber deposited on the valves and lubricated the seats quite nicely. If lead were removed, the design of the engines would have to change to include a hardened valve seat, or the wear would result in a loss of compression and performance degradation.

This was a blessing for engine oil sellers since the lead salts as well as the lead scavengers (ethyl bromide for instance) would no longer be in the blow-by getting into the crankcase. Our products could do their work in a less corrosive and contaminated environment.

Americans also faced our first Arab oil embargo, which caused gasoline to go from 25 cents a gallon to about 60 cents. (Oh, for those good old days!) With that, the government began to involve itself in fuel economy as well as tailpipe emissions.

In 1974, I took a run at the additives side of the business, joining Edwin Cooper Inc. in St. Louis, Mo. (A decade later it would become Ethyl Petroleum Additives and still later Afton Chemical.) This was a real eye-opener as I learned how engine oils were formulated and tested. I watched as the new API engine oil category system was put into place amid lots of fears by major oil marketers that it would commoditize the market. That turned out to be true but didnt have quite the effect that many were fearing. The big brands still did just fine, and the general quality of engine oils improved.

We were developing API SE quality engine oils by then, but oil marketers still wanted to claim extra performance so we also needed to meet the military specs. That involved getting approvals under MIL-L-46152 for gasoline fueled engines and MIL-L-2104 for diesel engines. It was also around this time that the first universal engine oils began to show up, claiming to satisfy both gasoline and diesel engines. Labeled API SE/CD, they were almost without exception monogrades and SAE 15W-40.

Engine oil viscosity was now moving towards multigrades with SAE 10W-40 and SAE 10W-30 the most popular. The challenges between approvals for the two grades were really significant since SAE 10W-40 had lower-vis base stocks which resulted in more failures in the Sequence IIIC due to excessive oil loss due to volatilization. Technically, this wasnt a failure of the oil but it was considered an operational failure of the engine test.

Base stocks also were changing during this time period. Sun Oil began marketing high-V.I. base stocks it made in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. North Americas first Group II-type oils, they were hydrotreated rather than solvent refined, which resulted in higher base oil yields and less byproduct, but they were still solvent dewaxed. Other majors were also making improvements in base oil processing. Chevron was shutting down the solvent refining operation in Richmond, Calif., and getting ready to build a true Group II base oil plant.

Meanwhile, another change was taking place in the retail market and consumers were seeing a new way to get their oil changed. Rather than doing it themselves or making an appointment with their mechanic, they could take their vehicle to a quick lube for immediate, inexpensive service. Quick lubes and their rivals now blanket the country, and the majority of aftermarket engine oil is sold through do-it-for-me channels.

After four hard winters in St. Louis, I went happily back to California to work in product management for Pennzoil. The day I started, Pennzoil announced that the entire department was transferring to Houston. At any rate, Pennzoil had six (at the time) blending locations. We produced API SE engine oils from various base stock/V.I. improver/additive pack combinations, and our base stock slate included solvent-refined, Pennsylvania Grade oils from our Rouseville, Pa., refinery, and others from Exxon.

We added base stock from Chevrons new Richmond Lube Oil Plant to this mix, and got into a bit of a jam. When base stocks are solvent dewaxed, a certain range of waxy materials are left behind in the oil. Formulators use pour point depressants to keep these wax particles from agglomerating and plugging up engines in cold weather. But Richmonds base stocks were being catalytically dewaxed, a very different phenomenon. The wax is not extracted at all, but altered into a very specific molecular structure which didnt respond to our accustomed pour point depressants. The upshot was a lot of scrambling to find a suitable PPD – and quick.

As time went on, Pennzoil upgraded its Shreveport, La., refinery to make high quality Group I base stocks and some cuts of Group II. We also opened a new blending plant there which was state of the art for its time. It was ultimately built to fill the new one-quart plastic containers that swept the industry in the 1980s, supplanting the composite fiber cans which had been the industry staple. We went on to convert all of our plants to plastic bottles.

Throughout my time there, Pennzoil always stayed on top of the latest product developments and had the most advanced oil formulations. In 1980, we were running API SE/CC engine oils (the MIL-L-46152 commercial designation) and in 1996 we were right there with the then-current API SG and SH engine oils. The primary viscosity grade in 1980 was SAE 10W-40 – by 1996, it was SAE 5W-30, after an intermediate stop at SAE 5W-30.

The API category system mentioned above was introduced in 1976 and soon the API donut service symbol was appearing on product labels, indicating the oils performance category, SAE viscosity grade and fuel economy (and now resource conserving) improvement. The OEMs were still not satisfied, saying the donut was consumer unfriendly, and were concerned that fuel economy was not getting enough attention. This all came to a head in 1988 at an SAE meeting in Portland, Ore., where the OEMs through the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (their then-trade association) introduced a plan to set their own standards.

The following four years were tumultuous to say the least, but they finally resulted in the document called API 1509, Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System. Approved in 1992, API 1509 includes protocols for approving the same additive system in various base stocks as well as confirming performance across different viscosity grades. This was the result of concerns that the easiest viscosity and base oil combination was being used to approve products.

With the OEMs blessing, the GF specifications were introduced, and in 1993 oils meeting GF-1 could license and display a new logo, the API Certification Mark, on their front labels. The starburst, as it became known, could be licensed only for the latest quality oil, and was intended to simplify the buying decision for oil customers. Automobile owners manuals began to tell drivers to insist on products with this logo whenever they bought engine oils; this set off a fresh round of fear that the market was being commoditized. It was, but once again, overall engine oil quality did get better.

As a major part of this four-year adventure, what is now the American Chemistry Council developed a system known as the Petroleum Additives Product Approval Code of Practice. This laid down strict rules for additive testing and approvals and essentially eliminated the easiest selection strategy not only for base oils and viscosity grades, but also for engine test stands and repeat runs. While the Code was a major improvement, it has resulted in a lot more paperwork and bureaucracy and cost.

My tour through the lubricants industry took me then to Chevron Oronite. Back on the additives side and still in Houston, I was in product management starting in 1996 and worked with various customers to develop new engine oil additive systems. The changes in these last years were some of the most extensive, due to significant shifts in the auto industry.

Vehicles were being driven by much smaller, more efficient engines and the changes to engine oil composition were significant. Base stocks were shifting to Group II, Group II+ (marketed as having higher V.I. and lower volatility), and some Group III. The viscosity grade of most interest was SAE 5W-30 but with strong movement towards SAE 5W-20 and SAE 0W-20, for fuel economy reasons. More synthetic base stocks were being used to hit volatility targets and SAE 0W-30 was beginning to appear.

Also starting in 1996, engine oil categories began to impose stricter limits on additive systems in the form of lower phosphorus and ash content, while putting a much stronger emphasis on oxidation resistance, wear protection, emissions and especially fuel economy. Every component was under scrutiny for its effect on these properties as well as viscosity. The retention of viscosity and friction reduction continue to consume a lot of efforts by additive suppliers.

Since joining LubesnGreases in 2007, Ive seen these challenges continue unabated. The industry continues to move forward with even lower viscosity grades – witness SAE XW-16 – and there may be more in the works. Base stocks continue to evolve with more and more Group II and Group III being used, plus the commercial debut of gas-to-liquids base stocks. Additive technologies likely will become even lower in ash content as metallic components are replaced by ashless materials, and will be called upon to supply even more fuel economy performance. And there are the wild cards: electric vehicles, different fuels such as natural gas or hydrogen, innovations in materials and tribologies.

All in all, the last 50 years have seen many changes but I think you havent seen anything yet!

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