Automotive Lubricants



A little over 150 years ago, the electric vehicle was heralded as a potential game-changer and the future of motoring. Yet the growing popularity of the internal combustion engine effectively slammed the brakes on its development.

Today, fueled by environmental concerns, governmental support and rapidly advancing technologies, the development of EVs is gathering pace once again.

According to the latest statistics from research firm Bloomberg NEF, electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. Over 2 million were sold in 2018, up from 1 million the year before and just a few thousand in 2010.

By late 2018, there were about 5 million passenger EVs on the road, a figure that is projected to reach around 7.5 million globally as this year draws to a close.

With battery prices falling, Bloomberg NEF predicts that price parity between EVs and conventional ICE vehicles should be achieved by the middle of the next decade, with sales forecast to overtake ICEs by 2037.

Widespread calls to ban the internal combustion engine are perhaps the main catalyst for change, and with emissions regulations tightening, automotive manufacturers are developing new EV models boasting improved efficiency and better performance that are capable of greater driving distances on a single charge.

Indeed, this new generation of transport calls for more advanced lubrication.

The effect this e-mobility megatrend will have on lubricants suppliers in the long term is unclear, yet many are relishing the opportunity to position themselves as leaders in this burgeoning sector. One thing that is certain is the electric vehicle is encouraging lubricant manufacturers to formulate new and innovative products to meet the demands of this technology. A new mindset will be needed and new challenges overcome.

As batteries and electric motors replace the conventional internal combustion engine, demand for passenger car motor oils, a significant market for lubricants companies, will inevitably be impacted. Yet the shift will also unlock plenty of new opportunities too, with specialized greases, transmission fluids and coolants required.

Although its a bit of an unknown about uptake and which countries are going to be leading their development, electric vehicles are definitely a significant disruptor to the lubricants business, said George Morvey, energy industry manager at consultancy Kline & Co.

A study by Kline last year considered the development of EVs and the effect on PCMOs. It found that despite the influx of full battery EVs penetrating the market, demand for PCMOs will remain.

The strong push from government should see China with the highest penetration of battery and plug-in hybrids through to 2040. China is second to the United States in terms of the number of vehicles in operation, so thats going to have a significant impact on volumetric PCMO demand, said Morvey.

However, the lack of a mandate in the U.S., combined with low gasoline prices and a preference for larger vehicles such as SUVs and pick-up trucks suggests the region is destined to become a hybrid electric market, so consumption of engine oil will remain high, he noted.

While we see full battery electric EVs having a negative impact on volumetric PCMO demand, we see hybrids and plug-in hybrids having a positive impact on formulation types-for example full synthetic-and viscosity grades such as 0Ws and 5Ws.

Overall, we dont expect to see any significant drop in volume. I think the bigger issue will be the route to market. Where are these vehicles going to be served? I think a lot of this business will be factory fill rather than service fill-and that will require close collaboration between lubricant manufacturers, OEMs and component manufacturers, Morvey said.

Fully electric vehicles will be complemented by hybridization, while improving the efficiency of vehicles with internal combustion engines can help to deliver emissions reductions right now, noted Rebecca Yates, product development director, cars and bikes at Castrol.

New lubricants play a vital role in each of these technologies. There is a misconception that the fully electric vehicle has no need for lubrication, but thats far from the case, she said.

Certainly, lubes for hybrids and battery EVs vary considerably in both form and function from those specified for ICEs.

Conventional engine oils typically require regular service intervals, whereas e-fluids tend to be fill-for-life and need to offer the same high levels of performance over extended periods of time.

Without an engine, battery EVs are almost silent, and any noise can affect the overall driving experience. Bearings running at high speeds, therefore, may be audible unless suitable greases are used with the electric motors to help dampen the sound.

These new lubricants also need to protect many complex electrical components, circuitry and sensors and must be resistant to the high temperatures generated by the batteries. Dielectric fluids and coolants help ensure faster charging, extended battery life and optimal performance.

Compared to a conventional car, the engine in a hybrid vehicle will experience significantly more stop-start events, said Yates.

While engine oil temperatures will be lower on average, the engine will be called on to reach higher RPMs more rapidly, placing more torque on gears and bearings while increasing the shearing stresses on the oil itself. In many hybrid and electric designs, motors and other electrical components are in contact with transmission fluids, which are also exposed to higher operating temperatures.

Better understanding how these lubricants react with materials such as copper and plastic is necessary too, noted Christopher Dobrowolski, Shell e-fluids coordinator.

A lot of OEMs are trying to design unique solutions using different materials to protect the electrical parts in these cars. You need to make sure that the lubricants are compatible with these, he added. The earlier an OEM approaches us with their designs and involves us in these discussions, the better.

Its important that they dont consider lubricants just as a commodity product but see them as a core component of a powertrain along with the gears, housing and other parts.

The question of copper corrosion, for example, is not new for transmission fluids, but the focus on it for electric cars is new. With conventional lubricants, there is a lot of sulfur and phosphorus content which can trigger corrosion. With e-fluids, were looking to solve this and improve compatibility.

Shell recently launched a dedicated range of transmission fluids, thermal fluids and greases to meet the performance requirements of high-tech EV powertrains.

We see e-mobility as a real opportunity, said Dobrowolski. Its a rapidly growing area. Shells latest scenario, Sky, shows a fast rise in demand for electric vehicles in the next few decades. In a Sky world, every new passenger car in the world could be electric by 2050.

Readers can learn more about the impact of electrification in LubesnGreases Perspective on Electric Vehicles, available at Clearly, the electric vehicle is evolving, and whether hybrid or fully electric, momentum is building for these machines. Players are investing heavily in R&D, and product development cycles are shortening. While opinion may be divided over the long-term effects on the lubricants sector, suppliers are focused on stepping up a gear to create specialized formulations suited to electric drivetrains.