North America

Low-viscosity Engine Oils Gain Footing in North America


Many oil marketers did not anticipate SAE 0W-16 passenger car motor oils to be recommended in key applications in North America until it became an approved viscosity grade in the ILSAC GF-6 specification. But with the delays to the new lubricant standard, Japanese automaker Toyota decided not to wait to take advantage of the additional fuel economy benefits it believes these oils can deliver.

Toyota now recommends SAE 0W-16 oils for the current-year 2.5-liter engine model of the Camry. The Camry, which comes with 2.5- and 3.5-liter engines, is Toyotas best-selling mid-sized sedan in North America, with more than 388,000 sold last year in the United States alone. In the owners manual, the car manufacturer directs consumers to look for an API SN service category donut symbol for SAE 0W-16, but allows the use of SAE 0W-20 oils (identified with the ILSAC GF-5 starburst) when the thinner oil is not available.

While Toyota is one of several Japanese original equipment manufacturers that began recommending this viscosity grade even before the American Petroleum Institute approved licensing for SAE 0W-16, its North American counterparts have been slower to embrace the low-viscosity oils. Lack of OEM applications in the region is the main reason many major oil marketers have chosen not to seek licensing of SAE 0W-16 grades.

SAE 0W-16 was first introduced into the SAE J300 viscosity classification system in 2013. It became licensable as API SN in October 2014 and as API SN-Resource Conserving a year later. However, according to APIs Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System, there were just 39 licensed SAE 0W-16 products worldwide as of March, with only 11 licensed to companies based in North America, including Shell, Citgo, JX Nippon Oil & Energy USA and Warren Oil.

These low-viscosity oils cannot become certified ILSAC products carrying the starburst symbol until ILSAC GF-6 is approved. Implementation of the standard is currently planned for first-half 2020, but an official schedule has not been issued due the status of the ASTM Sequence IVB test for valvetrain wear, which still must be finalized.

Until then, both API and OEMs will need to educate end users and also educate service providers, who likely will do the vast majority of oil changes on new vehicles requiring SAE 0W-16 oil.

SAE 0W-20 was widely adopted by OEMs in 2010, although like SAE 0W-16, few products were observed on store shelves at that time. Today, 1-quart or 5-quart packages are hard to find in retail stores. Instead, distributors make this grade widely available, and some service providers store SAE 0W-20 in bulk quantities.

A similar pattern is expected to emerge in the next several years for SAE 0W-16. Distributors are likely to sell quart bottles or 6-gallon bag-in-box packages to service providers to efficiently supply the new product until demand grows.

Addressing the Issues

In addition to Toyota,Honda is allowing SAE 0W-16 in its Fit and Accord hybrid models, but the owners manuals for these vehicles call for the current ILSAC GF-5 starburst, which cannot be shown on SAE 0W-16 oils. In other words, the automaker is recommending oils that dont exist, and car owners will have to choose either a 0W-16 oil or an oil with the GF-5 starburst.

This begs the question: Will others follow before ILSAC GF-6 is implemented, especially if the category continues to be delayed?

It has also not been decided if ILSAC GF-6B, which will include a different fuel economy test for low-viscosity oils such as 0W-16, will even use the ILSAC starburst or if API will create another symbol once GF-6 is approved.APIs Lubricants Group and other industry groups have debated about the potential for misuse of SAE 0W-16 in applications not designed for it if it bears the same ILSAC starburst.

The concern stems from the tradition of back serviceability of engine oils, which ILSAC has maintained so newer lubricants can be used in older vehicles. This will not be possible for 0W-16 oils.Marketers counter that end users and service providers do not just look at the ILSAC starburst but also the viscosity grade, so misuse of SAE 0W-16-where, for example, an SAE 5W-30 is specified-is unlikely.Using a different mark than the starburst is actively being discussed.

Planning for Lower Viscosities

Theres a good chance that specifications for ILSAC-type lower-viscosity oils will begin to diverge. In fact, the draft specification for GF-6 includes two variants, one for 0W-20 and higher, and one for 0W-16 (and potentially lower) viscosity grades, said Mark Sztenderowicz, global manager, automotive engine oils at Chevron Oronite.

Japanese automakers are already working on requirements for SAE 0W-8 engine oils, which may be used in different types of engines or applications-for example, hybrid vehicle range extenders-than higher-viscosity grades. Such applications may result in lower peak oil temperatures or different drain intervals than conventional vehicles, while requiring very high fuel economy.

Given the lower viscosity and different requirements, the expectation that these new, very-low-viscosity engine oils should meet the same performance specifications as higher-viscosity oils meant for conventional applications is not apparent. On the contrary, an argument could be made for a substantially different set of tests and requirements for low-viscosity engine oils, with these differences coming in the areas of wear, fuel economy, oxidation and deposit formation.

A second issue concerns the operating life of many of the new engine tests. Can a thinner oil be run in the test engines without impacting the operating conditions of the other tests designed for legacy viscosity grades? The altered conditions could then impact test results for the legacy grades. So far this has not proven to be a concern, since SAE 0W-16 is not all that different from SAE 0W-20, but as the industry goes beyond SAE 0W-16, engine oils of lighter viscosity grades may need different engine tests.

Differences in engines may require disparate engine tests for low-viscosity oils. Engines that are optimized for 5W-30, for example, are not likely to be representative of those designed to use 0W-16 or lower grades, and in fact may not be able to run on them without risk to the hardware, or very short test engine life, which leads to higher test costs, Sztenderowicz added.

On the other hand, an engine designed for 0W-8 could potentially be used to test 5W-30 or even higher viscosity grades without risk to the hardware, though the sense of doing so is questionable, he continued. For example, the Sequence VIE is designed to have a certain contribution from hydrodynamic and mixed lubrication regimes in the test, making it appropriate for measuring fuel economy over a limited SAE viscosity range (0W-20 to 10W-30). This test has already proven insufficient for measuring fuel economy improvement in 0W-16, resulting in development of the Sequence VIF.

The Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association has proposed a new specification to be introduced in 2019 to manage SAE 0W-8 and 0W-12, which SAE J300 added in 2015, so the precedent may be set before ILSAC deals with this for a potential ILSAC GF-7 specification for oils thinner than SAE 0W-16.

In With the New

For lubricant marketers, the next decision is when to start selling the SAE 0W-16 products. The Toyota Camry is a popular car, but initial oil changes in 2018 may still be done by dealerships-which generally procure oil through large-scale supply agreements that also cover engine oils for factory fill. Shell seems to be jumping on the bandwagon with the launch of its Pennzoil 0W-16 product in mid-March. Selda Gunsel, vice president of lubricant technology, told LubesnGreases that the company was already marketing SAE 0W-16 oil in Japan, where the market for these products is more established.

Some marketers will follow with similar strategies, but some may wait until the new viscosity grade is more established. The latter approach would mirror the uptake of SAE 0W-20, which after eight years and growing OEM recommendations exceeds 10 percent of the North American marketplace, with volume expected to double by 2021, according to additive maker Infineum.

Adjusting Base Oils

In the immediate future, SAE 0W-16 will have little impact on the types of base stock that marketers use today, but that could change down the road.

As the industry moves to products with much lower viscosities, higher viscosity index mineral base oils or synthetic base stocks will be needed to meet viscometrics and volatility specifications. Gunsel said that Shells API Group III base oils made with gas-to-liquids technology at its Pearl joint venture with Qatar Petroleum in Ras Laffan, Qatar, can be used to formulate SAE 0W-16, 0W-12 and 0W-8 engine oils that provide enhanced viscosity control, reduced oil consumption and greater fuel economy than is available from typical Group III base stocks.

Other non-conventional base oils will also enable growth of these lower viscosity grades.Jeff Brown, CEO of Novvi LLC, said the producer has focused on designing synthetic base stocks made from renewable materials with improved viscometrics and low-temperature performance. Novvi has already demonstrated an SAE 0W-8 lubricant, and we are working on new molecules that will meet OEM and consumer needs for the advanced lubricants of the future.

SAE 0W-16 use in the Toyota Camry is just the beginning for this viscosity grade in North America, and it will grow as engines requiring this product penetrate the fleet and applications expand. The journey will not end with 0W-16, as OEMs develop new engines that maximize fuel efficiency and the lubricants industry designs products that can deliver the highest level of protection.

Steve Haffner is president of SGH Consulting LLC. He has over 40 years of experience in the chemical industry, primarily with Exxon Chemicals Paramins and Infineum USA. He specializes in engine oil formulation and marketing. Contact him at or 908-672-8012.

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