After a decade of watching bright stock capacity blink out, the global lubricants industry is about to get two substantial injections of this unique, extra-heavy base oil. One is racing out from the Middle East, the other from North America – and both are expected to reach a welcoming market before the end of this quarter.
The North American player is the privately owned Ergon Inc., which is poised to begin shipping 3,000 barrels a day of a particularly heavy paraffinic bright stock from its naphthenic base oil refinery in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Initial volumes will be available in September, the company said in a recent update.
The Middle East source is Luberefs refinery at Yanbual Bahr, Saudi Arabia. Jointly owned by Saudi Aramco (70 percent) and Jadwa Industrial Investment Group, this refinery is adding 90,000 metric tons a year of paraffinic bright stock capacity to its current 84,000 tons there. The nearly complete $1 billion project, under construction since 2013, principally is building 708,000 tons/year of API Group II capacity, while also serving up more Group I bright stock.
The sooner these barrels arrive the better, said Joe Rousmaniere, business development manager at Chemlube Inc. in Harrison, New York. Theyre going to be the most popular guys in the world, he declared. Because bright stock supplies have dried up over the past decade, the products price has escalated to a level that is around $300 a ton over the price of a premium SN 500 heavy neutral, he pointed out.
Bright stock is prized for its robust thickness – almost 500 centiStoke at 40 degrees Celsius – bright color, good viscosity index (usually in the 90s) and a pour point that can be lower than -15 C. Some of these stocks are quite high in sulfur content, which limits their use in multigrade automotive engine oils, but there are still plenty of industrial lubes, heavy gear oils, marine engine oils, process oils and greases that rely on their weighty contribution.
Its expensive now for two reasons, Rousmaniere explained. First, its more difficult to make because you have to have a special process unit to make deasphalted oil, and that extra step costs money. Second, its expensive now because its very short, so theres a supply-demand scenario at work. Some years back, it used to be there was too much bright stock – you could hardly give it away. That is not likely to happen again.
Market research firm Kline & Company estimated global bright stock capacity sank to a low of around 69,000 daily barrels in 2015, down 10 percent since the end of 2009. It blamed the decline on API Group I base oil refinery closures, many of which also snuffed out bright stock units: Shell in Montreal, Petroplus and Colas in France, Essar in the U.K., Safor in South Africa and Lukoil in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, to name a half-dozen. Two more closings this year (Shell and Q8, both in the Netherlands) eliminated over 2,000 b/d more.
Barring greater investment in bright stock capacity, Kline foresees a potential supply shortage of around 6,000 b/d by 2025, despite the expansions at Luberef and Ergon and possible debottlenecking elsewhere.
That is likely to spur demand for alternatives such as heavyweight polyisobutene, polyalkylene glycol and polyalphaolefins. All, however, are more expensive than Group I base oils. Some Group II refiners have also developed ranges of heavy neutral bright stock look-alikes to capture some of this market, but Group II and III refineries are optimized for making lots of light and medium neutral cuts. They werent designed with bright stock in mind, so these heaviest grades largely have been delivered by Group I and naphthenic refiners.
Ergon is taking a different tack, as the companys Ed Casserly explained in May to the Society of Tribologists & Lubrication Engineers and last month to the National Lubricating Grease Institute. As he was speaking to North American groups, his colleague Tim Langlais was making the rounds in Asia, starting with the ICIS Asia Base Oils & Lubricants Conference, to describe what Ergon is about to unleash.
At the STLE meeting, Casserly said bright stock is a high-viscosity lubricant base oil named for its distinct, almost fluorescent orange-red appearance. The conventional route to making bright stock begins with paraffinic crude distillates, he said. The distillate oil first goes through a propane deasphalting unit, followed by solvent extraction and solvent dewaxing steps. The resulting material is around 2000 to 2800 SUS (30 to 33 cSt at 100 C).
For its bright stock entry, Ergon is altering the usual process flow, starting with the crude type: naphthenic. All crudes are an uneven mixture of paraffins, naphthenes and aromatics, of course, but low-wax crudes with a large percentage of naphthene hydrocarbons are labeled naphthenic.
After distilling naphthenic crude, the Vicksburg refinery will send the distillate oil into its PDA unit. The deasphalted material next will advance through hydrotreating and catalytic dewaxing steps to recover those heavy paraffinic molecules. Essentially, Vicksburg will craft a paraffinic bright stock from naphthenic crude, Casserly observed.
The process will make a heavy cut that is twice as thick as the conventional stuff, at 4900 to 5300 SUS (37 to 47 cSt at 100 C, or ISO VG 1000). That weight can be an advantage when thickening an industrial lubricant or grease. The downside for some may be the viscosity index: only 80 to 85.
If viscosity drives your application, our product is there, stated Casserly. Theres also an opportunity to reduce bright stock treat rates, and using this more viscous bright stock with lower-cost base oils will drive the customers costs down.
The absolute gravity, pour point and flash point are all similar to traditional bright stocks, and the color is a little lighter and less red, possibly because the sulfur content has been shaved down to 0.07 percent, Casserly said. Hence the name, Hygold 5000BS. The saturates level will also be lower, as conventional bright stock is in the mid-70s and were at 64. We may address this in our processes later, if the marketplace needs to see a higher level.
When it opens, Vicksburg could be the worlds largest bright stock producer, he added. In Asia-Pacific, were seeing a significant deficit now in the bright stock supply-demand balance, and we expect it will be significantly worse in 2025, Casserly said. Europe is in a bright stock surplus for now, but they will be reducing that oversupply. And North American supply will grow slightly by 2025 – provided no one else in North America closes a Group I plant, which we do not expect.
Other regions Ergon expects will be short on bright stock supply include South and Central America, including Mexico, the Middle East and Africa.
The law of supply and demand still being in effect, this augurs a healthy price for bright stock going forward. In January of this year, bright stock was priced at $500 per metric ton over Group I SN500, and while bright stock suppliers have relished this premium, it also opens the door to alternatives, Casserly said. This will either lead people to make investments in bright stock production, like we have, or it will drive substitution.
Speaking on the sidelines of STLEs trade show, Ergons Jay Coleman confirmed to LubesnGreases that the new material should be ready to ship in September, and upon introduction may be pegged slightly below conventional Group I bright stock. Although it has greater thickening power and lower sulfur, the relatively low V.I. is the main reason for this, he said. As formulators familiarize themselves with the materials strengths, he hopes to see the value rise.
Interest in the new product has been high, Coleman said, and every available sample from a pilot plant run was long ago snatched up by formulators. The next phase will see commercial volumes put into circulation.
Ergon also will be opening a supply hub in Ulsan, South Korea, in the second half of this year, with 1,600 tons of naphthenic base stock storage. It will stock the full range of its base oils, including the new bright stock, Casserly said.