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New Shoots from Renewable Roots

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After decades of painstaking cultivation, is the market for biobased lubricants ready to bear fruit? Various participants and observers agree that it is – helped by regulations, end-user interest, and a buzzy crop of high-performing renewable products.
In a study performed last year, the market research firm Kline & Co. estimated that global demand for biolubricants may amount to 300,000 metric tons a year at best, which is a scant 1 percent of the finished lubricants sold worldwide. But in certain segments, such as hydraulic fluids used in construction and forestry, chainsaw lubes and transformer oils, it pegged demand as high as 8 percent.
From this small base, the New Jersey-based consultancy projects above-average growth for the entire biolubes segment, in contrast to the flat or declining demand foreseen for conventional products.
The study noted that biolubricants have no clear-cut definition. There are readily biodegradable products, which degrade by 60 percent or more to their natural state within 28 days, lessening the impact in case of spills or losses. There are biosourced products, which usually have bio-content of 25 percent or greater; typically these are made from canola, soy, sunflower, palm, tallow, coconut and most recently cellulosic sugar. There are renewable base stocks made without recourse to petrochemicals. Formulations also include additives that are non-toxic to the environment, with no taint of heavy metals or substances banned under 40 CFR 401.15.
Kline researchers gauge that 80 to 90 percent of biobased lubricants are sold in Europe and the Americas (especially the U.S. and Brazil), with the balance consumed in Asia and the rest of the world. In countries where uptake remains small, the key barriers have been lack of driving regulation or raw materials, lack of high-performing products that can do the job as well as conventional petroleum-based lubes, and uncompetitive prices.
Among the market leaders they identified are Panolin and Fuchs in biobased finished lubricants; Cargill, which has a significant position in rapeseed-based transformer oils; Houghton (metalworking fluids); and Condat (tunnelling equipment).
On the regulatory side, said Klines study Opportunities in Bio-lubricants, key drivers have been the European Unions Ecolabel scheme and the U.S. Department of Agricultures BioPreferred program that guide purchasers to choose biobased lubricants (among other products). More recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency implemented its Vessel General Permit program, which says ships and workboats in U.S. water must use biodegradable lubricants wherever theres an oil/water interface.
On the supply side, the longtime stalwarts are unsaturated esters (such as TMP oleates), which are the base oil of choice for applications with moderate operating temperatures, such as marine, forestry and agriculture.
More recently, LubesnGreases has seen an increase in renewable and bio-sourced offerings which claim to outperform the basic vegetable oil-based lubricants. Some recent examples:
The Dehylub series from Emery Oleochemicals are renewable ester-based lubricants targeting marine applications, such as thrusters, hydraulics, stern tubes, compressors and wire ropes. These are readily biodegradable, available in a wide range of viscosity grades, and in case of a spill leave no visible sheen on the waters surface. They also have earned the European Ecolabel.
Lubrizol GR213A is unique in being the first additive package for greases to achieve the rigorous European Ecolabel. The additive package is fully compatible with vegetable oils and natural esters, as well as synthetic esters, and offers antiwear and extreme pressure properties. Other components for making grease have the Ecolabel, but this is the only additive package, which streamlines grease product development and registration, the company points out.
Soleum Solid Lubricant is a new additive from Solazyme that comes in the form of a light-colored, spherical solid. Micron-size in scale and very low in volatility, it releases liquid triglyceride oil under heat, friction or pressure to immediately provide needed lubricity. The solid lubricant is based on high-oleic oils, and its coefficient of friction is said to be lower than graphite or molybdenum disulfide.
Aria WTP 40, from Elevance Renewable Sciences, is an ester-functionalized polyalphaolefin copolymer intended for use as a base stock or blending component. It has a very high viscosity index of 162, and pour-point of -30 degrees C. Derived from renewable carbon-based building blocks, the product surpasses regular PAO/ester blends in a number of key performance areas, such as additive solvency, elastomer seal compatibility and foam resistance, says Elevance. It also holds HX-1 registration from both NSF and InS, as suitable for use in food-grade lubricants.
At the Society of Tribologists & Lubrication Engineers meeting and trade show in May, Elevances booth was thronged by visitors seeking information and samples of the bright, clear liquid. Frederyk Ngantang, in technical marketing at the Woodridge, Ill., company, explained that Aria WTP 40 is a 40 centiStoke, API Group V base stock that can be used straight or blended with lower viscosity synthetic and mineral base stocks, to make enhanced industrial and automotive lubricants.
Greg Gerhardt, market development principal for lubricants and additives, emphasized that Elevance has a world-scale, 180,000 t/y biorefinery in operation in Gresik, Indonesia, which uses a proven metathesis process to make renewable olefins from palm oil. Next year the company will open an even larger facility in Natchez, Miss., to be fed with canola or soybean oil. So as demand grows, commercial supply will keep pace, he pointed out.
May also brought the unveiling of something the industry has never seen before: a 100 percent renewable polyalphaolefin. Usually PAO is made from linear alpha olefins like decene (C10), but biotechnology company Novvi says it can isolate the identical molecule from plant materials to achieve a direct replacement, and will make PAO without resort to petroleum or natural gas feedstock.
The first step will be to scale up at the same tolling plant in Houston that makes Novvis renewable Group III base oils, which are made from plant sugars. We expect to have commercial volumes of PAO by the end of 2017 or early 2018, Novvi President and CEO Jeffrey Brown told LubesnGreases last month. Were not manufacturing PAO yet, he added, but were running it in a pilot plant.
Certain vegetable oils – palm and coconut, for example – are known to have a high C8/C10 proportion, but Brown declined to say if theyre the root of this PAO. We have our own route to make decene, a biological-to-chemical route, and is very proprietary, he said. It does not start with farnesene, the material we make our Novaspec Group III oils from, but it uses virtually the same reactor units, so we can be very flexible with a common manufacturing infrastructure. The heart of the processes – hydrogenation, distillation, oligomerization – are common.
It will cost about $100 million to build a renewable-PAO manufacturing facility, seeded with funds from Novvi co-owners Cosan and Amyris. We are also going out for additional financing, Brown added. The plant overall will be in the 40,000 to 50,000 ton per year range, and the exact split between PAO and Group III doesnt have to be fixed – we can be flexible with that.
Shortages of decene have hindered conventional PAO suppliers, so couldnt Novvi become a decene merchant? Yes, but were not planning to sell the decene we make, Brown declared. We will make PAO. Thats where we see being able to add value.
Of course, he continued, producers such as Ineos, Chevron Phillips Chemical and perhaps ExxonMobil Chemical are moving to add PAO capacity. But meanwhile, theres an opening. Plus we will be differentiating on our renewable aspect, which makes it more environmentally friendly. Novvis PAO is not biodegradable, he clarified.
Joe Rousmaniere, business development manager at the base oil supplier Chemlube in Harrison, N.Y., is excited about the potential for renewable lubricants, and especially the concept of a renewable PAO.
The PAO market is tight as a drum right now – especially for PAO made from C10, which is the very best, the top-grade stuff. But there are only two ways you can make C10: from petrochemicals or from biomatter. The most important thing is that the Novvi PAO promises to be a straight drop-in. That means therell be no need for three years of engine tests before you can use it in an engine oil.
All things being equal, there should be a premium for green products, he continued. If the quality is exactly the same, and you say the product can be made from either petrochemical or from sugar or palm oil, Ill take the green product – especially if Im a company like Volkswagen or a Japanese automaker. All of the car companies have renewable mandates for their suppliers, and that goes for lubricant suppliers, too. I see the pull coming from really higher-end OEMs who want a biobased product.
Given all that, maybe the price can even be a little higher – but not much. Its unlikely that users will pay much more. Anyway, theres no point to making it if you cant make it better; you need to have the performance along with the renewable.
If youre going to be green, Rousmaniere concluded with emphasis, the reason to do it isnt to be virtuous – the reason is to be better.
Ecolabel Makes Inroads
Europes voluntary Ecolabel scheme, which identifies environmentally acceptable products for consumers, began including lubricants in 2005, and immediately set the bar very high for formulators, as Gareth Fish, technology manager for grease at Lubrizol, explained to the recent NLGI annual meeting in Idaho. By 2008, only 39 products from nine manufacturers had qualified to display the Ecolabel flower symbol, and not one was a lubricating grease.
The situation is better today, offering broader choices for buyers. Today, there are 132 products on the list, including 11 greases, Fish said. The main points of such products are low toxicity and high biodegradability. Low bioaccumulative potential is another criterion. One of the toughest hurdles has been the requirement for lubricants and greases to contain at least 45 percent renewable carbon, while also being fit for purpose, meaning that performance cannot suffer in the pursuit of environmental acceptability.
To guide producers in selecting their ingredients, the Ecolabel created a Lubricant Substance Classification (LuSC) list of chemical substances and raw materials that have been assessed and proven to meet the strict requirements. A second list shows the qualified products by brand name. The listed substances can be used up to the maximum treat rate to formulate Ecolabel lubricants, Fish said. (See www. ec.europa.eu/environment/ecolabel/documents/lusclist.pdf)
Instant Market: Just Add Water
One of the newest mandates favoring biobased lubricants is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencys Vessel General Permit. Pursuant to enforcement of the Clean Water Act, the program took effect in December 2013, and compels vessels longer than 79 feet operating in U.S. waters to use environmentally acceptable lubricants or EALs wherever there may be oil-to-sea interfaces, except where technically unfeasible.
More than 58,000 ships are liable under the VGP program, and the most common lubricant types theyll use, EPA said, are vegetable oils, synthetic esters and polyalkylene glycols. Qualifying products must be at least 75 percent readily biodegradable, pass acute and chronic toxicity tests, and contain no banned substances such as antimony, copper, phenol and zinc.
Despite a five-year voluntary phase-in period, few operators actually moved to refit their ships until they were forced to by the Dec. 19, 2013, deadline; many were simply caught unawares. Suddenly, vessel maintainers needed appropriate lubricants for stern tubes, stabilizers, azipods, wire ropes, rudders, propellers and other gear, as Caroline Huot of Unilube Marine recounted last fall in Amsterdam.
Demand was totally underestimated, and most suppliers were unprepared when the legislation kicked on, Huot said. Having insufficient production capabilities to meet the sudden demand, some major producers quickly rebranded products from small specialty blenders, but it still takes time to plug the supply gaps and achieve OEM approvals.