Biobased Base Stocks Take the Lead
While global demand for other finished lubricants slows, so-called green lubes will ride on the shoulders of sustainability. That bodes well for biobased and biodegradable base stocks.
The 350,000 metric ton per year market for bio-lubricants is outpacing the industry at large, which is likely to stumble and contract in the future, according to Kline & Co.’s analyst Sharbel Luzuriaga.
While the COVID-19 pandemic will also trip up the bio-lubes sector by about 20% this year, the market will pick itself up by 2021 and sprint forward at about 3.5% per year through 2024, he reported.
“There are untapped growth opportunities, considering the low penetration of bio-lubricants demand in some key country markets,” Luzuriaga observed during a mid-summer webinar. For example, while the United States consumes about 40% of the world’s bio-lubes, penetration is just under 2%. It is one of the fastest-growing country markets, with uptake of bio-lubes expected at about a 4% compound annual growth rate from 2019 to 2024.
Kline defines bio-lubricants as being readily biodegradable, renewable and non-toxic. However, the general industry understanding of bio-lubes is converging into a cradle-to-grave approach, with sustainability defined by the socio-economic benefits of using the products, Luzuriaga said. This includes lower energy consumption, prolonged machine life, occupational safety and reduced carbon footprint.
Advances in performance are picking up steam and contributing to the surge. “The early stages of the bio-lubricants market was driven by regulatory mandates in order to reinforce protection of sensitive areas such as forestry,” but performance couldn’t be delivered, Luzuriaga observed. “With a little bit of technology advancement and the emergence of chemical additives, those drawbacks were progressively overcome.”
While the lockdown and economic downturn have slowed research and development efforts and investments, they have by no means stopped. Sources agree that advances in biobased base stocks have provided the greatest boost for finished bio-lubes. As Luzuriaga pointed out, base stocks will be able to reconcile the key concerns of performance and price in finished products.
“Perhaps the biggest and quietest change in the past several years is the availability of odd-carbon biobased fatty acids,” Tyler Housel, head of the Lexolube division of Zschimmer and Schwarz, told Lubes’n’Greases. Until recently, fatty acids were only available with an even number of carbon atoms. “The odd-carbon acids improve the low-temperature properties of the ester [base stock] and also boost the oxidative stability.”
Synthetic esters are the most common base stock used for bio-lubes, according to Kline, making up more than two-thirds of demand in 2019. However, their high price relative to mineral base stocks has been an obstacle to wider adoption. The recent decline in crude oil demand due to the pandemic has lowered mineral base stock prices, widening the gap.
Luzuriaga pointed out that bio-lubes companies prefer investment partnerships and collaboration over the mergers and acquisitions seen in the rest of the industry. The partnership between Novvi LLC and Chevron has born the most recent fruit. The two companies last month announced commercial-scale production of Novvi’s farnesene-derived renewable base stocks at its Deer Park, Texas, facility.
If the company can live up to its stated goals, this news is a boon for bio-lubes. “Novvi is focused on delivering renewable solutions … without trade-offs in performance, price or availability,” said Jeff Brown, Novvi’s president and CEO, in a press release.
Brajendra Kumar Sharma, senior research scientist at the University of Illinois’ Sustainable Technology Center, pointed to Biosynthetic Technologies’ base fluids, as well. “Authors have reported that estolides have been tested against a set of similar competing base oils from the marketplace, and the results show that they have excellent performance in the areas of oxidative stability, hydrolytic stability, volatility, viscosity index and wear protection,” he told Lubes’n’Greases.
More innovations are coming down the pike. Along with Gobinda Karmakar of the University of North Bengal in Darjeeling, India, Sharma also highlighted that vegetable oil- and lignocellulose-derived cycloalkane base oils have shown excellent pour points and an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but they suffer in other areas such as viscosity index when compared with commercial synthetic base oils.
According to Sharma and Karmakar, the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation at the University of Delaware has developed a suite of chemistries for producing renewable lubricant base oils with tunable properties using vegetable oil and lignocellulose-derived feedstocks. “The main advantage of this portfolio of technologies is the specificity in the degree of branching, molecular weight and functional group in these molecules,” the academics said. “Their properties are as good as, or often better than, commercially available high-performance lubricants.”
Cost is still a limiting factor for these fluids, they continued, but alternative feedstocks such as waste oils may mitigate the problem.
Kline believes that factors like the increased availability of high-quality biobased base stocks, positive public opinion and regulations, along with performance demands, corporate social responsibility initiatives and the desire to optimize operating costs will converge on a favorable performance-to-cost ratio and help bio-lubes surge ahead.
Caitlin Jacobs is managing editor of Lubes’n’Greases magazine. Contact her at Caitlin@LubesnGreases.com.