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As the president of the Petroleum Quality Institute of America, I am frequently asked about motor oil. Many seek PQIAs opinion as to whats the best oil in the market or if one brand is better than another-something we dont comment on-but there are many others we do address. The latter typically relate to concerns about motor oils a consumer is using or planning to use, or to obtain additional information about the products PQIA tests.

We also get a healthy number of calls from consumers concerned about products and labels and problems theyve experienced using certain motor oils, transmission fluids and coolants. And from time to time, we get calls requesting that PQIA test certain products in the market.

This column, however, is about another type of question we are fielding at an increasing frequency from both consumers and lubricant marketers. While we would like to offer better answers, without changes in how the lubricants industry defines products, the answers given often fall flat.

In short, the question Im speaking about is: How do you know if a synthetic oil or synthetic blend is, in fact, synthetic?

A flippant answer to the question is Because the label or seller says so, but in reality there is not much more a consumer can do other than look at the label and trust the supplier. In fact, short of having knowledge about American Petroleum Institute base oil groups, access to blend records and the sleuthing skills and time to trace a blend batch from start to finish, there is no way for anyone other than the blender to definitively know that a motor oil, or any other product for that matter, is synthetic.

Most synthetic oils claim to the term synthetic is based solely on the use of API Group III base oil. Unlike when polyalpha­olefins and esters were the primary types of base oils used to make synthetic motor oils, and laboratory tests could verify and quantify their presence in finished products, there are no tests to conclusively show that a motor oil contains API Group III base oil. This is because Groups I, II and III, including the unofficial Group II+ and Group III+, comprise a mixture of chained, branched and some ring hydrocarbons with differing carbon numbers, meaning there is a good deal of overlap in the hydrocarbon distribution of the molecules across the span of API base oil groups.

Instead of defining synthetics by the types and distribution of hydrocarbons, as is the case with PAO and esters, viscosity index, saturates and sulfur are the analytics that separate conventional (API Groups I and II) from synthetic base oil (Group III). And since the saturates and sulfur content of most base oils in the market today are at or above the limits for Group III, the only official analytic that separates conventional base oil from synthetic is often the 120-viscosity-index line of demarcation between Group III and Group II. In the view of some, this is not enough, and more can and should be done to officially separate base oils, since there are meaningful and monetizable differences between them.

So, what can be done?

There are a number of metrics that API could adopt. For the most part, they include cold-cranking viscosity, Noack volatility and additional V.I. lines. But while there appears to be growing consensus circling around these measures, there are varying thoughts as to where the lines should be drawn to separate groups to create real and meaningful opportunities to differentiate base oils and the finished lubricants that make use of them. Needless to say, this is a challenging task complicated by a number of variables and, to a degree, subject to inter-material competition and competitive forces. Particularly concerning at this time is what some say will be a glut of Group III base oils entering the market, some with impressively high V.I.

PQIA agrees that the utility of the current base oil grading system may have run its course and change is warranted, but the question remains: Even if this is done, how will consumers know for sure that the synthetic, or for that matter a synthetic blend, has synthetic base oil in it?

One answer we often hear is, They probably cant know for sure. But does it really matter, since synthetic is a marketing term and performance is whats important? There are measurable and meaningful differences seen when synthetics are used.

There are some important market reasons why it should matter, and they are not just about the premium margins the synthetic marketing term currently enjoys. These reasons will be the subject of part two in this series.

Tom Glenn is president of the consulting firm Petro­leum Trends International, the Petroleum Quality Institute of America, and Jobbers World newsletter. Phone: (732) 494-0405. Email: tom_glenn@petroleumtrends.com

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